|Tuesday 14th of December 2021
The Savage Detective @believermag
I begin with a personal recollection, because it’s the only way to start, I think, when you’re going to talk—or write—about a writer you were lucky enough to know, and about books whose company you’re still lucky enough to enjoy.
It’s the end of fall or the beginning of winter in Barcelona 2001. And it’s cold and there are clouds and there’ll be rain. And before getting on the commuter train back to Blanes, the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, for the first time in his life (or at least that’s what he swears), steps into one of Barcelona’s many Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets.
We’ve already visited the inevitable bookstore La Central (almost certainly the greatest bookstore in the world), where Bolaño picked up various books that he plans to use for research for his novel 2666.
The walk is part of a routine established in 1999, when I first met Bolaño and we became friends: books and a walk and something to eat. So this time it’ll be Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I go in with Bolaño (it was my idea to get something to eat here, I confess), and we order our respective meals. Bolaño sits down at a table from which he can see the whole room, lit by harsh neon lights, and surveys his surroundings in fascination. “Have you noticed? Everybody’s here…”
He smiles almost in ecstasy, and everyone—I turn around to see—is a throng of South American immigrants, legal or illegal. They’re recognizable by their foreign features, but also by the discipline with which they count out the exact change when they pay, the almost reverential silence of their chewing, and the great care they take not to spill on their sweaters patterned with ethnic motifs.
There are also—it’s true—Asians, sub-Saharan Africans, and the occasional American college student, nostalgically seeking a taste of home.
But the Latin American component is clearly in the majority; and Bolaño can’t stop staring at all of them as if they’re potential masterpieces.
The—love?—in Bolaño’s gaze is none other than the love a father feels for his children, or the horrorized pride of the sanest of mad scientists gloating over a laboratory crammed with potential experiments.
Bolaño eats, still smiling: with the gleeful sadness of someone who remembers terrible moments from his own past, looking everywhere and nowhere; a little bit maudit and completely Bolaño when he says that the South American writers living in Barcelona—“right away, now’s the time”—should make this Kentucky Fried Chicken their gathering place, the spot where they meet to talk and debate.
And, of course, what Bolaño is doing is laughing at the idea of writers—writers of any nationality or galaxy—getting together to talk about literature.
In Bolaño’s opinion—then and always—literature should inhabit books, not bars. From which it follows that the only protagonist of Bolaño’s work—the authentic heroine of his books—is literature itself.
Literature as Golden Fleece or Holy Grail or Rosebud-branded sled pursued to the bitter end by men and women who believe solely in it.
Because what’s the point of believing in anything that isn’t literature, defined by Bolaño in an interview as the thing that plants itself “in the territory of risk”?
We leave the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Bolaño goes down the stairs to the platform of his commuter train and I return home and half an hour later Bolaño rings my doorbell, again.
He is soaked by the storm and wild-eyed and shaking as if barely withstanding a private earthquake. “I’ve killed a man,” he announces in a deathly voice; and he comes into my apartment, heads for the living room, and asks me to make him a cup of tea.
Then he tells me that as he was waiting on the platform, a couple of skinheads had come up to him and tried to rob him, that there was a scuffle, that he managed to get a knife away from one of them and stab the other one near the heart, that then he ran away down corridors and streets, and that he didn’t know what to do next.
“What should I do? Should I turn myself in?” I say he shouldn’t. Bolaño looks at me with infinite sadness and says that he couldn’t keep writing with a death on his conscience, that he wouldn’t be able to look his son in the eyes anymore, something like that.
Moved, I say that I understand and I’ll go with him to the police station; to which he responds, indignant:
“What? You’d turn me in just like that? Without mercy? An Argentinian writer betraying a Chilean writer? Shame on you!” Then Bolaño must have seen my desperation, because he gave one of those little cracked laughs of his and, fascinated, said over and over again,
“But you know I couldn’t kill a mosquito… How could you believe a story like that?”
Good question. And only now do I understand that on that afternoon, without realizing it, I was enjoying the rare privilege of seeing Bolaño writing and writing himself, reading aloud, and—rarest and most precious phenomenon of all—seeing myself inside one of his stories. One of those stories where Bolaño was and is and luckily always will be a Bolaño character.
*I also remember that at some moment that afternoon the subject of hopeful monsters came up, that phenomenon studied by biologists and geneticists and referred to by English novelist Nicholas Mosley in his great novel titled, yes, Hopeful Monsters.
Creatures that are all mutation. An off-the-charts blip in the evolution of a race. An exception that gathers strength until it becomes the dominant strain, a victorious beast—that’s where the hope, the optimism, comes in—or eventually succumbs and disappears without a trace, just like dragons, fairies, and unicorns.
On rare occasions, these hopeful monsters manage to stick around and mix with “normal” people, those content to adapt to the ways and demands of the world.
But it doesn’t happen often: Hopeful monsters usually fight to the last breath to establish themselves as the ironclad new rule to follow, and to force the world to adapt to their new traits and habits.
They often perish, victims of their strange and peerless ambition. And yet they appear onstage to leave their mark (with teeth and claws and neurons), and then tell the story in new words, with a fresh eye.
And so it’s usually artists and scientists—not to forget the occasional assassin—who are hopeful monsters.
And there are other hopeful monsters: the hopeful monsters of Bolaño’s fiction.
I’m referring here to hopeful monsters like the “savage detectives,” the “Flying Sudacas,”* the “most beautiful children in Latin America,” the “wizened youths,” the “veterans of doomed revolutions,” or simply and complexly, the “monsters.”
I’m referring here to Carlos Wieder, Auxilio Lacouture, and Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix—heroes and villains of Distant Star (1996), Amulet (1999), and By Night in Chile (2000)—and I’m also referring to Bolaño, that terminal optimist: the man who wrote about them as if observing them from the opposite end of a microscope or telescope.
The man who never stopped smiling as he calculated how many days he had left to write a novel as gigantic as life, or set down his habits and eccentricities in a notebook, in strange, tiny handwriting, or on the screen of a computer so old that it was hard to believe it could still obey the bidding of his brain and fingers.
The man who warned us that his fiction always came mixed up with the nonfiction of a quick, long, and slightly incredulous farewell to himself,1 a “last communiqué from the planet of the monsters,” as he says near the end of Distant Star. Monsters without optimism or hope. Just monsters. Monstrous monsters.
To read those three vast novellas—Distant Star, By Night in Chile, and Amulet2—together as if they were a single book isn’t just a whim. In some sense, this “trilogy” becomes a partial but inevitable—and for the reader in English, inaugural—attempt at an atlas of the planet of the monsters in Bolaño’s work. The first and indispensable volume of an Encyclopedia Bolañiana.
I’ve gone back to read all three—in the order they were written, over the course of a few days—and their perfect, disturbing communion astonishes me, the way they reflect each other and suddenly fit together like parts of a harmonious whole, as—accidentally or intentionally—the reader wanders like a sleepwalker through the territory where Roberto Bolaño lived and wrote and daydreamed.3
There are clearly books that lose something when they’re grouped together, and others that gain force by accumulation. The latter is the case with these three titles.
To begin with: From a generic point of view, all three are novellas, like The Invention of Morel, by Argentinian writer Adolfo Bioy Casares; or Pedro Páramo, by Mexican writer Juan Rulfo; or Our Lady of the Assassins, by Colombian writer Fernando Vallejo.
That is to say: They’re vast, short novels that belong to what Henry James,4 an expert on the subject, defined and consecrated as “the beloved, the blessed novella.”
And they’re also Latin American. Mutations. Sad animals capable of radiating the most powerful happiness.
Specimens that endure and enjoy a heightened capacity for understanding—an understanding of the cataclysmic and happy force that turns coal into diamonds—and that in Bolaño’s case are transformed by historical forces into hysterical flotsam projected onto the backdrop of an unreal realism that under no circumstances should be confused with the magnificent geography of García Márquez’s Macondo and the increasingly miserable suburbs of his epigones and imitators.5
To continue: The three—like much of Bolaño’s work—are almost blood relatives; they go back and forward a long way; they share synapses and winks. And the main character of each is a poet.
So—pay attention here, for this may get confusing—Distant Star is a record of the “dreams and nightmares” of Arturo Belano, nomadic hero of the masterful meganovel The Savage Detectives (1998)6 and at once transparent and darker alter-ego of Roberto Bolaño.7
Distant Star also previously appeared in an earlier and shorter version, as an ominous coda at the end of the parade of literary freaks that is La literatura nazi en América (1996), in which Carlos Wieder is called Carlos Ramírez Hoffman and tagged with the very Borgesian adjective loathsome.
Also appearing in Distant Star is an earlier version of the priest, literary critic, and mediocre poet Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix (under the name Nicasio Ibacache, which would become the journalistic pen name of the narrator of By Night in Chile); and the voluptuous and dying shadow of the porn star Joanna Silvestri, who pops up again in one of the best stories from Llamadas telefónicas (1997).
Amulet is almost a bonus version—a longer remix—of Track 4 of the second part of The Savage Detectives in which Auxilio Lacouture nominates and annoints herself “the mother of Mexican poetry” and of all poets, Arturo Belano inevitably among them.
By Night in Chile (its working title was Shit Storm) rescues the ominous duo of Mr Etah and Mr Raef—who had already strolled through La senda de los elefantes in 1993, reissued as Monsieur Pain in 1999—and projects the nameless shadow of the “wizened youth” and “splendid Chilean” who torment the priest Urrutia Lacroix like Poe’s trademark crow.
A shadow that’s clearly the shadow of guilt itself, of innocence betrayed. Or the shadow of Arturo Belano and his soldiers marching across the length and breadth of The Savage Detectives, a novel that I sometimes can’t help thinking of as a kind of epiphanically catastrophic beatnik–South American Lord of the Rings:
But maybe the most interesting symbiosis among these three books by Bolaño is that together they make up—rationally or instinctively—a perfect troika of South American mythology.
A triad sustained by the bright and dark hopes of three monsters, antagonistic but almost fraternally complementary in knowing themselves to be crazed by art.
An equilateral triangle composed of three imaginary lives—in the Schwobian sense of the phrase—with Carlos Wieder as the victimizer, Auxilio Lacouture as the victim, and Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix as the opportunistic and impassive witness to the contest and combat between victims and victimizers, who, at the end of his life, discovers that no sin is more mortal than not belonging to any group or any place.
In this sense, Distant Star, Amulet, and By Night in Chile—successively presented to the reader as vengeful recollection, terrified ravings, and feverish confession—are also three of the most original and revelatory political novels of recent times.
Three politicized memoirs flirting with the roman à clef—that other perverse and more or less intimate form of the political novel in which proper names translate into distant ghosts9—but free of all cheap, demagogic coercion.
Three deceitful true stories in which “accusation” masquerades as a melancholic and lyrical visit10 to little-explored corners and not as a new and predictable trip—postcard-panoramic and tragi-magic and for-export-only—to the commonest places, where the hit parade of continental misfortune is hawked.
Three manifestos written for love of the art and not out of the pathological need many Latin American writers have to feel that they’re automatically artists by virtue of having been born at a bad moment in a bad country and are thereby authorized to write badly about it as holders of passports of circumstance.
In contrast, the force that drives Bolaño to narrate certain shameful public episodes seems to be generated not by accusations or demands for justice but by the will to seek and find in horror the contagious virus of good stories hidden just beneath the surface of History.11
Who was it who said “there are other worlds but they’re part of this world”? As is often the case, I remember the phrase but not where it came from. A couple of phone calls don’t shed any light on the matter, and so, here and now, the orphan phrase slips into the custody of Roberto Bolaño.
Because it’s clear that one of those many possible worlds is the planet of the monsters—hopeful or not—from which Bolaño’s works are transmitted over and over again in obscure mathematical code or bright, transparent letters.
Those planetary monsters gathered under the covers of their various books that in the end form a single book. A single house containing many mansions.12
It’s clear that Bolaño’s ambitions were staggering. And that the results are magnificent. What Bolaño sought and achieved was the Total Oeuvre, a place on the same team as Cervantes, Sterne, Melville, Pynchon, Proust, and Musil: men also committed to the search for and discovery and writing of what the Chilean defined in 2666 as the “hidden center” or the “secret of the world”
while—like Borges—he went about constructing and quoting writers and works within his own work as a writer.
Think of these monsters as the mythological beasts decorating the edges of ancient maps, filling the void of the unknown, the spaces where travel isn’t possible yet, and where sailors and explorers and readers are warned off with a Here Lie Monsters.
That’s where we’re headed.
In Distant Star, the aerial poet and exterminating devil Carlos Wieder—a wolf among the writing-workshop sheep, a beast whom I sometimes can’t help giving the face and smile of Orson Welles in The Third Man or the lidless eyes of Christopher Walken in any of his films—writes the phrase Death is cleansing in the skies of Santiago.
Near the end we are warned: “What you have to understand is that Carlitos Wieder looked down on the world as if he were standing on top of a volcano; he saw you and me and himself from a great height, and, in his eyes, we were all, to be quite frank, pathetic insects. That is how he was…”
In Amulet, it’s again and forever the “horror story” of bloody October 196813 at the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature in Mexico City when Auxilio Lacouture—a light amid the shadows of Wieder and Urrutia Lacroix;
“the enraptured voice of an Uruguayan who should have been a Greek,” as her creator describes her—shuts herself in a bathroom for several days, floating in a Robinsonian or Kurtzian (the Kurtz of Apocalypse Now, not the Kurtz of Heart of Darkness) sea of memories until achieving that instant of certainty from which there is no return.
“I’m memory,” she understands near the end, and then is devastated by the ghostly procession of youths who go by singing on their way to the abyss.
In By Night in Chile, Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix succumbs to the terrible fever of guilt and presents his case as if he’s trying to win the pardon of a jury as invisible as himself.
Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix as a kind of Scrooge shaken by nighttime ghosts of the “supreme terror” while “faces flash before my eyes at a vertiginous speed, the faces I admired, those I loved, hated, envied and despised. The faces I protected, those I attacked, the faces I hardened myself against and those I sought in vain.”
And a final common trait links Bolaño’s three monsters: all three—seeking refuge behind Faulkner, Petronius, and Chesterton epigraphs/keyholes—are highly concerned by the construction of their respective museums/mausoleums/works; by the verdict of the future; by the patinas and stains of posterity.14 As they lose themselves in memory, Bolaño’s characters tend to worry about how they’ll be remembered.
Inevitable question: was Roberto Bolaño a hopeful monster, a rare optimist in a mostly sad and less than sparkling landscape?
In an interview with Eliseo Álvarez, Bolaño joked about his artistic origins:
“My father wasn’t just a trucker: he was also a professional heavyweight boxing champion in the south of Chile. To compete with him, my only choices were to be stronger than him or to flat out opt for homosexuality, which seemed like a wonderful aesthetic solution, but wasn’t in my nature; I was born heterosexual. So all I had left were movies and books, and as a boy
I basically spent all my time seeing lots of movies and reading lots of books and, naturally, trying to kill my father. My father, of course, has always loved me, like any father.”
And, yes, Bolaño’s books and planet are unequivocally Bolañesque or Bolañist.15 Which means that Bolaño’s creatures always seem to live firmly ensconced—in one way or another—in literature, while Bolaño lived on and in literature: the books of Bolaño the writer are full of books and writers. “
The truth is that reading is always more important than writing,” he said; and I’ve known few people who loved or relished the art of reading more, and who so enjoyed—an important detail—describing in their own words what they were reading, what others had written. Bolaño believed in very few things, but one of them, I’m convinced, was the redemptive and curative power of the verbs to read and to write.16 Possibly as a result—this may be the source of that unanesthetized, merciless fury—he was incensed by all the bad writers sprung from the minds of worse readers. Beings who would never manage to solve a perfect crime while splashing in the “shitpool of literature.”
Beyond the jocular pessimism of the essay/diatribe “Los mitos de Cthulu” that closes the collection of stories and lectures El gaucho insufrible (2003),17 I think Bolaño was betting on a positive future for Latin American literature, no matter how clearly he intuited—more or less secretly—that he wouldn’t be around to see it.
At some point he talked to me about his plan to put together an anthology that would set the course, an anthology of new Latin American literature. First he thought about calling it Continente, but then, immediately, he was amused by the title Invasión and by the idea of assembling his chosen ones like a combat unit:
“Just a few highly qualified ninja commandos, a few marines, and the rest… Red Cross officials!” he said, bursting out laughing. Which didn’t prevent him, toward the end, from feeling himself to be and presenting himself as a kind of time-traveler, someone outside of time and space, emitting signals for all those who cared to receive them.
Someone who knew himself to be physically excluded from the future of literature, and so opted to preempt it and build it in his books.18
In Tres (2000)—his last book of poetry published in his lifetime19—Bolaño signs off with a long text titled “Un paseo por la literatura.”
In the piece, Bolaño dreams that he’s “an aging Latin American detective, and a mysterious Foundation has hired me to find the death certificates of the Flying Sudacas.”
In the piece, Bolaño faces the challenge—and emerges triumphant—by conjuring up his own ghost. Because there are two kinds of writers: those who worry about guaranteeing their immortality (I think of Hemingway) and those who worry more about the creative task of fitting together the different pieces that will ultimately constitute the model of a ghost (I think of Fitzgerald).
In the piece, Bolaño presents himself as a sleuth of books in flames, an inspector of countries enmeshed in doomed battles, a medium channeling writers lost but linked forever on the shelves of his library. And he presents himself as what he thought writers were and should be: investigators of monsters.
“I dreamed that I was an old, sick detective and that I went looking for people lost a long time ago. Sometimes I glanced at myself in the mirror and recognized Roberto Bolaño,” he wrote in the piece.
Both The Savage Detectives and 2666—colossal novels, huge books that seem to give off the musical command that the tall black monolith emits in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—are books with protagonists who are ghosts in reverse: living beings who wander like lost souls and yearn for a mythology, or ideology, to anchor them.20
Both novels function like Chinese puzzle boxes or Russian dolls, receptacles that open and close and gradually trap almost everything in the world and beyond.
Both can be looked at like a Hieronymus Bosch painting or a damp fresco by Diego Rivera or an illustration in the style of Where’s Waldo? in which we, the readers, are Waldo.
They’re historical novels and political novels and novels about the act of writing and the act of reading in which it’s explained to us that “reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing an idea, like listening to music (yes, yes), like gazing at a landscape, like going for a walk on the beach.”
Novels of a kind that are rarely written and whose humble—because inevitable—intention is to suggest an alternative chronicle of the twentieth century and—as in The Savage Detectives, but here in the opposite sense, like a return trip from everything—a chronicle of the ties of blood, sweat, and tears that bind Europe and America and divide them from each other.
If The Savage Detectives can be read as an outward-bound trip—paths radiating in thousands of directions from a point of concentrated energy in Latin America, visions and revisions of the revolution filtered through an arts poetica —2666 presents itself as the yang of that yin: it departs from multiple cities of Europe in a quest to answer a Mexican mystery that resides in a border town with the name of a saint.
What’s under discussion isn’t the art of poetry—New World, realist, visceral—but the art of the novel as a noble, distinctly Old World attainment. In The Savage Detectives, everyone is on the underworld trail of the poet Cesárea Tinajero, whereas in 2666 it’s the Central European prose of Benno von Archimboldi that’s pursued.
Both novels end in the desert, which is one of those wide landscapes—beaches, skies, oceans, mountain ranges—that Bolaño always writes in CinemaScope and Super 8, simultaneously. The best of both worlds.21
And it occurs to me that the experience of reading any book by Bolaño is the consequence of Bolaño’s experience writing it.
Few contemporary writers have managed to infect the reader by inviting him, generously and at his own leisure and risk, on the adventure of living a book while it’s being read as if it were being written.
Let me explain: Bolaño’s headlong, nocturnal writing (he wrote at night, nonstop)—racing against all odds to reach the last page—works on the reader, producing a similar effect.
No matter what time it is, when you read The Savage Detectives or 2666 it isn’t long before you fall into a kind of trance, somewhere between somnambulant and hypnotic.
The prose of both novels captivates more than that of any of Bolaño’s other books because the aim here is to achieve a kind of artistic summa, a harmonious and at the same time dysfunctional whole where what is sought and achieved is nothing less than a theory of the world.
Which is not to imply that I have any idea what it was like to write The Savage Detectives or 2666. I doubt that he talked much to anyone about that. I think he preferred to discuss what he was reading, and that what he was writing was a private conversation, only sporadically voiced.
Although we saw each other often, my direct experience of the creation of his novels is slight. I was only in his office twice, where I did, in fact, see charts and arrows. He has me make appearances a few times in his books,22 and he called me twice to ask me a question.
The first time was to ask me what a certain kind of Mexican vulture was called (it was a turkey buzzard) and the second time was to ask me for a recipe for pork chops. Both times it was my wife who gave him the answers he needed.
On page 264 of 2666, the errant Chilean Amalfitano receives a nighttime visit from a ghostly voice that talks to him about something Amalfitano doesn’t understand, something the voice defines as “broken-down history” or “history that’s been taken apart and put back together”;
and this something—Amalfitano understands although he doesn’t understand—was what happened when “history, put back together again, became something else, a scribble in the margin, a clever note, a laugh that took a long time to fade and leaped from an andesite rock to a rhyolite and then a tufa, and from that collection of prehistoric rocks there arose a kind of quicksilver, the American mirror, said the voice, the sad American mirror of wealth and poverty and constant useless metamorphosis, the mirror that sails and whose sails are pain.” This voice, which happens to be defining 2666 itself, could well be—so one is led to believe by various notes alluded to by [Bolaño’s literary executor, Ignacio] Echevarría in a postcript to 2666—that of Arturo Belano, protagonist of The Savage Detectives and presumed alter-ego of Bolaño. I say “presumed” because it seems to me that with Belano, Bolaño created something more interesting than the usual disguise a writer uses to turn himself into a character. Maybe—it occurs to me—Belano would be the same as Bolaño if Bolaño had chosen to be Belano and not the Bolaño who ended up writing Belano. Something along those lines. Does that make sense? Yes? No? I didn’t think so.
In any case—another point that strikes me as interesting—Belano is more a protagonist-mirror than anything else. Someone who, rather than acting, seems devoted—in his constant journeying—to reflecting or devouring the actions and voices of others, like a black hole.
Second parties and third parties and multitudes and generations tend to be projected onto Belano. By that I mean to say that Bolaño was the least self-fantasizing writer I’ve ever known, even though he had ample material with which to construct his own legend in life, if he’d been so inclined.
Bolaño was a real character—for those who never met him, his photographs more than suffice, with Bolaño looking like a cross between a Victorian explorer and a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s last and ultimate outlaw band—but he hardly ever talked about his history, his past, what he’d lived and what he’d almost died for.23
Bolaño didn’t like to tell his own story. As he once wrote in a newspaper piece, “I’ve always thought autobiographies were odious. What a waste of time, the narrator trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, when what a real writer should do is catch a dragon and make a silk purse from it.”
Nevertheless, sometimes he’d let something slip in an interview and I would call him to ask about it and Bolaño would change the subject, and we’d move on.24
What Bolaño liked much better was fantasizing about other people. Making up stories, hypotheses, conspiracy theories encompassing everything from the competitors on Big Brother to the possibility that bin Laden was a hologram produced in the labs of some American security agency much higher up than the CIA or the Pentagon.
This taste for conspiracy is evident in all his books, in his vision of an alternate reality, a present written from the future, from the impossible year/cemetery of 2666 where everyone would no longer have fifteen minutes of fame but rather fifteen minutes to explain themselves, to prove themselves worthy of a noble tombstone or sturdy mausoleum.
For Bolaño, the future was the final exile and exile is possibly the Theme of Bolaño’s work,25 but please don’t get the wrong idea: exile was NEVER Bolaño’s strategy as a writer.
And not only does that do him honor, it sets him apart from all the other self-fantasizers of South American literature drifting from conference to conference and selling their small tragedies and huge mythomanias. Like Cesárea Tinajero and Benno von Archimboldi, Bolaño prefers to mythicize himself by disappearing.
In strictly literary terms, the black hole that now occupies the exact spot where Bolaño once wrote will be impossible to fill: Bolaño—with many books still to come, with half a century behind him, right at the midpoint, equidistant in age from his elders and his juniors—was one of those rare hinge-writers who mark a new generation through the simple pleasure of shaking up certain self-satisfied forms, structures content to have achieved the easy and false immortality of the fossilized.
In personal terms—in keeping with Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s postulate that “writers aren’t people, exactly”—Bolaño was someone who could always surprise you.
One night—days before he was hospitalized—Bolaño offered an impromptu and brilliant class in the art of storytelling: he kept repeating an extremely bad joke—a joke that he thought was incredible and that I can’t tell here because I still don’t understand it—with tiny variations or drastic changes, never altering the plot.
It’s no exaggeration to say that a person could’ve learned much more then and there than in years in a writing workshop. There was Bolaño, smiling like a Buddha as we guzzled whiskey, Bolaño stirring his usual chamomile tea with the parsimony of an English lord in some colony too far from Buckingham Palace.
And I asked myself what the secret and dangerous ingredient in Bolaño’s little cups of tea must be; because the truth is that the man would listen to you with almost pious sweetness, then take a sip, and suddenly drop a word-bomb that would leave you shaking in fear and laughter at the same time.
Because Bolaño could be frightening. Very frightening. All of a sudden, smiling, he would toss off something like “I have a kind of blood type that only those who’ve written The Savage Detectives have” or “Writers are worthless. Literature is worthless. Literature only exists for literature’s sake. That’s enough for me.”
I remember Bolaño talking about literature and beheading intruders and dilettantes (piltrafillas was a word he liked to spit when, with almost religious fervor, he excoriated all those who struck him as unworthy of paper and ink and computer).26
I remember Bolaño discussing the fates of the competitors on Big Brother (never Operation Victory) as enthusiastically as he talked about the comings and goings of Stendhal’s characters.
I remember Bolaño obsessed by what the twist might be at the end of the film The Sixth Sense (Bolaño didn’t go to the movies, so he would wait for the release of the DVD and in the meantime torture people with hypotheses like “I know; the kid is a vampire, right?”).
I remember Bolaño dancing spasmodically to “The Ketchup Song” (a summer single that struck him as amazing); or describing his dreams (“Dreams are like psychiatrists, curing you every night”) or extremely strange Z-grade movies from late-night TV whose titles he always forgot (he never got cable TV, which I guess was because he knew that if he did, he would be hooked forever).
I remember Bolaño singing along with horrible screeching Mexico City rock songs that he thought were masterpieces of the genre and that to tell the truth scared me a little because of the almost Mr. Hyde–like effect they had on him.
And I remember Bolaño, the last time we got together to talk, theorizing that mankind’s next great evolutionary leap would be artificial, not natural: men would turn themselves into machines in order to reach the distant stars and “not have to depend on these shitty bodies of ours,” he growled.
Of course, Roberto was really talking about his illness, about his very serious liver complaint; and that was one of those moments when Bolaño seemed to be broadcasting directly from one of his books.
I told him then that he sounded like the replicant Roy Batty, Nexus 6 model, from Blade Runner. Bolaño—who dreamed of “losing my memory and turning back the clock to start all over again”—smiled and said: “Don’t I make it sound nice?”
In the previously mentioned last interview with Mónica Maristain, Bolaño says several serious things, humorously. Asked which literary character he would most have liked to resemble, he says: “Sherlock Holmes. Captain Nemo. Julien Sorel, our father; Prince Myshkin, our uncle; Alice, our teacher; Houdini. A mix of Alice, Sorel, and Myshkin.”
He lists favorite books, among which are Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, the complete works of Borges, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial, Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, and Petronius’s Satyricon.
He also says that he imagines paradise is like Venice, “worn by use, a place that knows nothing lasts, not even paradise, and that in the end it doesn’t matter,” and that hell could only be Ciudad Juárez, “which is our curse and our mirror, the unquiet mirror of our frustrations and our shameful interpretation of freedom and our desires.”
Asked about his health, Bolaño says that he found out his condition was serious in 1992 and that the knowledge didn’t change him in any way, but “I realized that I wasn’t immortal, which, at the age of thirty-eight, it was high time I learned.”
When he’s told that he’s considered “the Latin American writer likeliest to stand the test of time,” he smiles and says “That must be a joke. Although it’s true that I’ve lived through a lot already, which is all that matters.”
He adds that the word posthumous “sounds like the name of a Roman gladiator. An undefeated gladiator. Or at least that’s what poor Posthumous wants to believe to give himself courage.”
Near the end, Maristáin asks, “What things do you want to do before you die?” and Bolaño answers: “Nothing in particular. Well. I’d rather not die, of course. But sooner or later the great lady comes. The problem is that sometimes she’s no lady, never mind great, but a hot slut, as the poet Nicanor Parra says, which is enough to make even the bravest man’s teeth chatter.”
And he adds: “I don’t believe in the afterlife. If it does exist, it’ll be a surprise. I’d enroll right away in some class that Pascal was giving.”
When, in another interview, Conchita Penilla asked him, “What kind of expression would you like to see on your readers’ faces when they finish one of your books?”
Bolaño replied: “Here are two answers; your question is a good one. First, I’d say that each reader’s face is his own and the state it’s in is none of my business. And second, that if it happened that each reader was able to see someone like himself in my books, then I would be satisfied. Especially someone like himself who doesn’t shut any doors, someone like himself who opens doors and windows and then disappears, because there are many things to read and life isn’t as short as people think it is.”
The night of Roberto Bolaño’s death, in July 2003—after fifteen days of agony, during one of the hottest summers in Europe’s memory—just after I received the phone call that informed me of his end, there was a man outside in the street banging a public phone and shouting “Talk to me!” with no response.
An unmistakable scene from a Bolaño novel. A few days later, the campground at Casteldefells burned, the campground where Bolaño had worked as a night watchman when he first came to Spain, and where, in 1979, he wrote Amberes, in the last paragraph of which there is a full declaration of principles:
“Of what is lost, irretrievably lost, all I wish to recover is the daily availability of my writing, lines capable of grasping me by the hair and lifting me up when I’m at the end of my strength. (Significant, said the foreigner.) Odes to the human and the divine. Let my writing be like the verses by Leopardi that Daniel Biga recited on a Nordic bridge to gird himself with courage.” The campground burned until nothing was left, while at the same time Bolaño’s mortal remains—he always wanted a Viking funeral—were turned to ashes and scattered over the waters of the Mediterranean. A last and respectful homage to the reality of his fictions, I thought then.
I began all this on a personal note, and it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to end on another: I remember the night in March 1999 when I first met Bolaño and he immediately invited me over for lunch that weekend, important as it is to be invited places when you’ve just moved to a new city in the way that Barcelona was new to me then.
Bolaño believed that “friendship is all that’s left from the time when men were gods and gods were men. Or actually there’s love, too, but love doesn’t see as clearly.”
Bolaño, if he decided to be your friend, was a real friend, and I knew it from the start. I also knew that Bolaño would be a friend like none I’d ever had before or would ever have again.
I remember that he gave me precise but complicated directions, in that voice of his, which is still the voice of his novels, and that I followed the directions unquestioningly and instead of getting on a train to Blanes I got on another, headed to Tarragona, and that I called him, lost somewhere, to ask for help and new directions, and that he—dramatic and overcome with laughter—said:
“Now you’re really fucked, Rodrigo. You’re lost.” And I said: “Well, then I’ll go home.” And he said: “But you’re never going to be able to go home, Rodrigo. Never.” And then I thought: “This guy is a psychopath.”
Later, with time, I realized that when Bolaño wished eternal and endless wandering upon me, he was really talking about something that had nothing to do with a missed train.
And that he was laughing at it all. And that all of it—absolutely all of it, poetry, literature, life, death—is in his books, which are always a pleasure to enter and immediately lose yourself in, so as to be able to find yourself. And to get back home, to return to this beautiful and monstrous planet, changed for good, for better, forever.
* Sudacas is a pejorative term for South Americans in Spain.—trans.
The Savage Detective @believermag - continued
1. As Bolaño put it in an interview with the Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa in BOMB: “The truth is that I don’t really believe in writing. My own least of all… I use the word writing as an antonym of waiting. Instead of waiting, there’s writing. Anyway, it’s quite likely that I’m mistaken and that writing is another form of waiting, of putting things off. But I’d like to believe that’s not the case.”
2. The first two are published in the United States by New Directions; the third will be published soon, also by New Directions.
3. In one of his last interviews—with Mónica Maristáin, for the Mexican edition of Playboy—Bolaño was asked “Are you Chilean, Spanish, or Mexican?” He responded, synthetically: “I’m Latin American.” But when he won the Premio Rómulo Gallegos, he spoke at greater length about how he defined where he was from, and where he situated himself: “Although I’ve been living in Europe for twenty years, my only nationality is Chilean, which doesn’t stop me from feeling deeply Spanish and Latin American. In my life I’ve lived in three countries: Chile, Mexico, and Spain. I’ve had almost every job in the world, except three or four that anyone with a shred of dignity would refuse… It occurs to me now that a person can have many homelands, but only one passport, and that passport is clearly the quality of one’s writing. By which I don’t mean writing well, because anyone can do that.… Then what is quality writing? The same thing it’s always been: knowing how to stick your head into the dark, knowing how to leap into the void, knowing that literature is basically a dangerous profession.”
4. Mysteriously or not: Bolaño couldn’t stand Henry James. He never told me why, no matter how many times I asked him to explain.
5. “About my work, I don’t know what to tell you. I suppose it’s realist… But that isn’t what matters in the end; what matters is the language and structure, the way of looking at things,” Bolaño explains in one of the interviews previously mentioned.
6. Soon to be published—like 2666—in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
7. A note for obsessives and completists: In the short opening passage of Distant Star, Bolaño refers to his hero as “Arturo B., a veteran of Latin America’s doomed revolutions, who tried to get himself killed in Africa.” Which turned out not to be quite true, fictionally speaking: Bolaño—in later conversations—referred to Belano’s “suicide” as more a symbolic than a physical act and planned to bring him back to Mexico City in an unfinished short story called “Sabios de Sodoma,” which will appear in the book El secreto del mal (2007).
8. Bolaño himself thought of The Savage Detectives as belonging to the genre of roman-fleuve and wrote, “I think I see it as yet another reading of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, one of the many that have followed in its wake; the Mississippi of The Savage Detectives is the flow of voices in the second part of the novel.” A flow that’s joined—it’s worth adding—by the sidestreams of Distant Star, Amulet, and By Night in Chile, which in no way diminishes them or makes them any less mighty.
9. The most wickedly delightful ghost of all may be that of José Miguel Ibáñez Langlois—Opus Dei priest and legendary and monopolistic literary critic for the conservative Chilean newspaper El Mercurio during Pinochet’s dictatorship, who wrote under the name Ignacio Valente—who becomes Sebastián Urrutia Lacroix, alias H. Ibacache in By Night in Chile.
10. Never forget that Bolaño, before he was a novelist, was first and forever a poet. And that one of his collections of poetry is called Los perros románticos (The Romantic Dogs), a title that—it occurs to me now—is a conscious and unconscious play on the title of The Savage Detectives because by shuffling the cards and dealing them again, we might end up with the more “normal” Savage Dogs and Romantic Detectives.
11. It’s worth pointing out that Bolaño—unlike most Latin American writers—wasn’t very political in his public statements, in the same way that he almost never mentioned his adventurous life, preferring to save the material to filter and infiltrate into his fiction.
12. “All my books are related. But it’s boring to talk about it,” Bolaño told journalist Luis García.
13. The Tlatelolco Massacre took place on October 2, 1968, in Mexico City. Military forces fired upon a peaceful student rally killing unarmed protesters, pedestrians, and children. The shooting lasted through the night. Some witnesses claim to have seen bodies loaded into garbage trucks for removal. A controversy still surrounds the official death toll and number arrested.
14. A concern that seemingly didn’t exist for Bolaño. Maybe it had to do with the fact that he knew he was sick and mortal and therefore he was more conscious that the real battle was in living and writing, not in dying and being read. I insert something here that he sent me once by email and that seems to me to explain very well his notion of the futility of bronze plaques: “I don’t know how there can be writers who still believe in literary immortality. I understand those who believe in the immortality of the soul, I can even understand those who believe in Heaven and Hell and the touching waystation of Purgatory, but when I hear a writer talk about the immortality of certain literary works I want to slap him. I’m not talking about hitting him but just slapping him once and then probably hugging him and comforting him. I know you won’t agree with me on this, Rodrigo, because you’re essentially a non-violent person. So am I. When I say slap him what I really have in mind is a kind of slap for the person’s own good, like the kind they give hysterical people in the movies so that they snap out of it and stop screaming and save their lives.”
15. Said Bolaño: “Of course I’d like to have my own literary tradition, a very brief one, with room for only two writers, maybe three (and possibly no books), an amnesiac flash of a tradition, but on the one hand I feel extremely modest about my work and on the other hand I’ve read too much (and enjoyed too many books) to imagine something so outrageous.”
16. If he hadn’t been a writer, Bolaño—as he explained in an interview with Mónica Maristáin—might have considered another profession: “I would much rather have been a homicide detective than a writer, I can tell you that for sure. A homicide cop, someone who could go back alone at night to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts. Maybe then I really would have gone crazy, but when you’re a policeman that’s taken care of with a shot in the mouth.” Other possible professions for Bolaño were bank robber, gigolo, movie director, “or being a kid again and playing on a basically mind-blowing soccer team.”
17. In the piece Bolaño writes: “Really, Latin American literature isn’t Borges or Macedonio Fernández or Onetti or Bioy or Cortázar or Rulfo or Revueltas or even that duo of old macho men, García Márquez and Vargas Llosa. Latin American literature is Isabel Allende, Luis Sepúlveda, Ángeles Mastretta, Sergio Ramírez, Tomás Eloy Martínez, somebody called Aguilar Camín or Comín, and many other illustrious names that I can’t remember at this precise instant.” And he ends, half-amused and half-distressed: “It’s enough to make you think there’s no hope.” Bolaño scorned Latin American literature that resorted to for-export Latin Americanism. Bolaño also liked to pick fights, cause trouble, polemicize. And when it came down to it, Bolaño believed only in Borges: “When Borges died, everything suddenly came to an end. It was as if Merlin had died,” he writes in one of his essays. And he concludes: “Borges must be re-read yet again.”
18. Sometimes conversations with Bolaño would begin as a simple exchange of everyday news, but almost before you realized it, things would head into metaphysical territory, as if Bolaño were already speaking from a twilight zone: one of his recurring ideas was his suspicion that he had died ten years earlier, in a hospital in Gerona, when he was diagnosed with a severe case of pancreatitis, and that everything that had happened to him in the last decade—children and wife and books—was just his final hallucination, the merciful prolongation of the last seconds of a dying man. On more than one occasion, Bolaño confessed that he wished he were “a fantasy writer, like Philip K. Dick.” And it’s clear that Bolaño’s aforementioned obsession is an obviously and perfectly Dickian obsession. Another detail: one of Bolaño’s favorite novels by Dick—who is often mentioned in the Chilean’s fiction and poetry and who “strikes me as more and more realistic as the years go by and I get older”—was Dr. Bloodmoney, Or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965). In the book, the astronaut Walt Dangerfield is condemned to endlessly orbit the Earth after a nuclear holocaust, becoming a kind of space disk-jockey broadcasting advice and songs from his module to illuminate our planet of monsters.
19. The publishing house Anagrama has announced the forthcoming publication of La universidad desconocida, in early 2007: a monumental book of narrative poetry, more than one thousand pages long, that will end up forming a kind of megatrilogy with The Savage Detectives and 2666.
20. Explained Bolaño: “Latin America is like the madhouse of Europe. Maybe Latin America was originally thought of as the hospital of Europe, or the bread basket of Europe. But now it’s the madhouse. A savage, impoverished, violent madhouse, where, despite the chaos and corruption, if you look hard enough it’s possible to see the shadow of the Louvre.”
21. Explained Bolaño: “The Savage Detectives is a very long but readable novel. I like unreadable things to be short… 2666 is such a huge work that it may ruin my health, which is already delicate anyway. When I finished The Savage Detectives I actually swore to myself that I would never write a roman-fleuve again. I was even tempted to destroy it all, since I saw it as a monster devouring me… Can I say something short about it? No.”
22. In 2666 I show up as myself in Kensington Gardens taking notes for my novel Kensington Gardens. I show up again as myself in his book of short stories, El secreto del mal.
23. It’s common knowledge that Bolaño returned to Pinochet’s Chile from Mexico “to fight.” He was arrested and accused of being a “foreign agitator” and absurdly considered “one of the ten most wanted men in the country, at least.” “I was very lucky. Two cops who’d been in school with me, when we were fifteen, got me out of jail. One of them said, ‘Don’t you remember me? We were in school together.’ I didn’t remember at all. It was impressive… Until that moment I’d been planning to stay in Chile for good, but when they let me go I said: ‘I’m leaving,’” Bolaño recalled in an interview with Mihály Dés. And in another interview, with Eliseo Álvarez: “When I returned to Chile, a little before the coup against Allende, I believed in armed struggle, I believed in permanent revolution, and I thought the time was now. I went back to Chile ready to fight, and then to keep fighting in Peru, in Bolivia… After I was arrested, I was in prison for eight days, although not long ago, in Italy, I was asked, ‘What happened to you? Can you tell us something about your six months in prison?’ At first they had me down for less time. It’s the typical Latin American tango. The first book of mine that was published in Germany says I was in prison for a month; the second, since the first didn’t sell very well, ups it to three months; the third says four; the fourth makes it five, and at this rate, pretty soon they’ll be saying I’m still in prison.”
24. Several clues are to be found in the magnificent selected stories from New Directions—Last Evenings on Earth (2006)—which gathers Bolaño’s most autobiographical stories. In them, he narrates and mythicizes his departure from Chile, his relationship with his father, and his days as a hunter of provincial literary prizes in Spain. But the truth is that Bolaño didn’t like to talk much about any of that. Bolaño didn’t want to be one of those writers playing the persecution blues at international conferences. At most, his real-life past seemed like good subject matter to him, raw material for the creation of his fictions.
25. In an interview with Sergio Paz, Bolaño says: “My opinion of Chilean literature in exile is that first, it isn’t literature, and second, it isn’t in exile. Strictly speaking, there is no Chilean literature in exile, and what there is strikes me as pretty bad.”
26. Another fragment from another Bolaño email: “Maybe if there’s any question we should ask ourselves, it’s this: what’s left of the Boom? Or maybe we should just stop talking about the Boom and talk, instead, about a group of Latin American writers who in the 1950s and 1960s tried to change literature in the Spanish language, although once we’ve gotten that far I’m afraid we’ll end up agreeing that literature in the Spanish language had already begun to be transformed in the 1940s, in a quieter and also more radical way. And that as an aesthetic phenomenon, it was less important than modernism. Maybe if there’s any question we should ask ourselves, it’s this: what’s left of the Boom? Maybe the question would be better posed in Freudian terms: do we have to kill the survivors of the Boom? It’s clear that the Boom is a calling. Definitely a calling, although felt less by the founding fathers than by the putative sons. People perfectly qualified to work at a bank who suddenly turn to writing, maybe under the lingering effects of some fever or flu. They don’t write because they have much, or anything, to say, but because they’re dazzled by the shine, the respectability, that the Boom brought to the profession. Deep down, the problem here is schizophrenia, isn’t it? Something like what happens to leftist militants whose discourse is really rightist and who nevertheless still insist on being leftists. And so we get, for example, a left that supports Castro’s dictatorship.”
A WHALE IN THE DESERT Tracing Paths of Migration in Turkana @emergence_zine @t_mcconnell
Tristan McConnell journeys across Turkana in Kenya’s Rift Valley, a place whose long story is still being written by a shape-shifting landscape and changing patterns of human and nonhuman migration.
At the foot of a ridge of successive hills, sparsely wooded with thorny acacias, lies a plain of shrubs, sand, and gravel. The sun overhead is relentless, the sky cloudless, as it has been for months now.
It is June, the depths of the dry season, the land arid as an abandoned well, the hot wind an empty promise. Cast in relief against the austere beauty of the land is a dark, volcanic outcropping to the distant north that is visible for many miles in every direction, while to the east shimmers the haze of Lake Turkana, a body of water that sprawls across northern Kenya like a sluggish crocodile.
In this part of the country, there are no paved roads, no piped water, no electricity poles, no brick buildings, no school, no shops, and no crops.
The landscape is coursed with dry riverbeds, prone to long droughts and occasional floods; there is hot sand underfoot, and thorns on every branch and stem.
Yet for Loura Ekaale, a rangy, shorn-skulled herder of the Turkana tribe, it is home, and a place he seems made for: a Giacometti sculpture of a man, he is all taut muscles and leanness, his feet cracked from walking, his face etched with lines, his eyes slits of obsidian permanently narrowed against the harsh light.
He lives with his two wives and six children in an isolated collection of five thatched reed huts, like upturned baskets, clustered around a thorn-fenced goat enclosure.
Ekaale and his family are pastoralists, livestock herders, whose existence is contingent upon water and pasture. The freedom to migrate, to move in search of both, is pastoralism’s fundamental strategy. Ever since he was a boy, Ekaale says, “I was led by green pastures.”
Turkana is a place and a people, and for both, migration has always been the path to survival, stretching back through generations and far beyond, deep into prehistory, and further still into our evolutionary past, back millions of years to when our first human ancestors emerged in Africa’s Great Rift Valley and then dispersed in waves, out of the continent to the rest of the world.
The Rift Valley had fascinated me for decades. As a young student of anthropology, I had learned about human evolution, about our first bipedal hominin steps, about the apelike australopithecines and the variety of Homo species of which we today are the lone survivors.
I learned how the remains of all of these were found in East Africa and how each fossil was a phrase, a sentence, or sometimes a whole chapter in the story of where we came from, and who we are.
I learned how Homo erectus had left Africa to reach Asia and Europe, how early Homo sapiens had followed in colonizing waves, developing agriculture, social stratification, monumental architecture, and, eventually, all the things we call civilization: the industry, technology, consumption, inequality, pollution, and destruction of the Anthropocene.
Later, as a foreign correspondent in Africa, I lived for years in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, four hundred miles to the south of Turkana, traveling widely to cover the daily news of power and politics, conflict, and crisis, but only rarely did I visit the northern wilds, where those sorts of stories were harder to discern, and even harder to sell.
Still, I wanted to learn something of the place where our human journey began, and where it continues today in a landscape that has held us, propelled us out, and compels us back.
That dispersal, that movement in pursuit of opportunity, continues. Yet in a denial of this most fundamental adaptive human behavior—our original survival strategy—modern migrants are more often feared than welcomed, more often met with violence than kindness, more often left to perish than offered help.
Turkana today is no biblical Eden. Rather, it is an unforgiving place where calamity is always a failed rainy season away, and survival is contingent on knowledge and mobility.
It is a place of geologic, climatic, and human dynamism that demands and rewards movement.
In so doing, Turkana remakes migration, reconfiguring it as a fundamental human trait, challenging contemporary notions of the threats posed by freedom of movement, between nations, through geographies, and across the borders and barriers erected to stop the flow.
Turkana reveals migration to be not just a right but an existential necessity.
For Ekaale, on the contrary, the threat is from anything that might limit movement: roads, fences, private property, political boundaries, government policies, prejudice, injustice.
Throughout his life, Ekaale has engaged in multiple, overlapping forms of mobility, using movement, fluidity, pragmatism, and opportunism to adapt to the changes around him.
Dry seasons are times of dearth, paucity of pasture, empty stomachs, parched mouths, high mobility, and big distances, walking for days at a time without returning home.
Wet seasons—scarcer nowadays as the climate tips towards aridity and drought cycles contract—are times of plenty, of pasture and proximity to home, of diets replete with milk and blood.
As an elder, Ekaale owns livestock but rarely herds them himself, for tending animals is a young man’s role, one that teaches the skills required to survive, skills such as reading the land, learning the water points, collaborating with allies, and avoiding conflict with enemies.
“You have to know the hills and the trees,” he tells me, as landmarks constitute one of the many maps that guide him through Turkana.
His oldest son, Lolamba, is learning these things now. Every morning, after the crested larks usher in the dawn with song and the equatorial sun rises abruptly above the waters of the distant lake, Lolamba releases the family’s fifty or so sheep and goats from their thorn-ringed kraal and, with nothing more than a small wooden stool and walking stick, sets off for the day, returning only in the late afternoon.
One morning, I walk with him awhile through the scratchy tussocks of echemee—a hardy, saline soil–loving shrub that is dry-season forage for goats—but his pace is brisk and light, at least twice mine, and I soon fall behind.
The last I see of Lolamba, he is paused on a basalt boulder in the saddle of Moru Sipo Hill, watching his livestock.
Stick in hand, hand on hip, leg slightly raised, he briefly and incongruously evokes Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Then he hops to the ground and slips from view.
Ekaale is an acute listener and compelling storyteller. As he describes different ways of moving through the landscape, his long limbs are folded like those of a contortionist entering a box.
His elbows rest on his thighs, his long fingers steepled in front of his chin. When talking, he leans forward solicitously and rubs his hands, punctuating his answers with a clap or spread palms; when listening, he cocks his head, emitting a murmured Mmmm of agreement and empathy, or an elongated Eh of understanding.
When he talks of his livestock, Ekaale smiles broadly, happily. He holds court beneath a thorny ebei, a Swiss Army knife of a tree, a Balanites related to the desert date, whose wood can be used to make tool handles, fences, poles, and stools, or for charcoal and firewood, and whose seeds and fruit can be eaten.
Mobility is an essential strategy, as Ekaale’s first wife, Nakiru, explains to me one morning: “We move with the rains, for if we stay in one place, the animals will die.”
Livestock are food, money, and status. To be without livestock is to be ngikebotok, to have failed, to be one of “those who have nothing”; to have livestock is to have everything, or at least enough.
“Living is about how you provide for your family,” Nakiru says as she breastfeeds her youngest child, seven-month-old Esukuku. “I can’t tell you if this life is hard, it is just life.”
To an outsider, perhaps a foreign visitor from the city, Nakiru’s life does indeed appear hard, but also simple, unconfused, contented.
The most common sounds around her homestead when I visit—besides the bleating of sheep, buzzing of flies, and chirping of birds—is an almost constant chatter of conversation, and laughter. The things that matter are all close at hand: family, livestock.
In contemporary Turkana, the word for “ancestors” is ngipen, and Ekaale can also navigate the land by their resting places.
He recently returned from a visit to his father’s grave, dug in a venerated position in the center of a former goat enclosure, where Ekaale poured milk on the dirt and prayed for the recovery of his sick daughter, Elepete.
His prayer was answered, he says, beckoning to the five-year-old, who comes forward, shy but healthy, the tartan blanket knotted at her shoulder parted to reveal parallel cicatrices on her chest and belly.
Besides landmarks and ancestors, Ekaale can also navigate the land by water sources and pastures, memories and stories, social connections and rivalries, but these days he mostly navigates by motorcycle, a 125cc Honda “picky-picky” he uses to ferry goats to market, turning a walking journey of days into hours.
The motorcycle has also increased Ekaale’s social status: he is respected as someone who can travel far and fast, conveying information and sharing news.
The scene might appear timeless, but it is the opposite. It bursts with time, the landscape fractures under the pressure of time.
Ekaale does not know the precise year of his birth, but he remembers being a small child in 1974, or, rather, the year of the solar eclipse—Ekaru a Aribokin—in a calendar defined by significant natural and human events such as heavy rains or drought, or even a particularly violent or destructive cattle raid.
It was cattle raiding that drove Ekaale and Nakiru here fifteen years ago; they migrated from the Loriu Hills, a two-day walk to the southeast.
Although Ekaale is highly mobile both day-to-day and seasonally with his goats and sheep, the move to Moru Sipo was the first time he had relocated to a new living place.
Each of these forms of migration has its own name: the seasonal movement known as awosit, the rarer and more dramatic recentering of a life called aramaken. The physical action of walking may be the same, but the distinction between the two is intense, like the difference between commuting and emigrating.
Armed cattle raiding—aremor in Turkana—is a rite of passage for young pastoralist men. As a symbol of masculinity and a way to accrue enough livestock to pay the bride price needed to marry, it serves both social and biological functions.
It is also an exercise in cohesion, bringing one group together against another—for example, the Turkana against the neighboring Pokot.
It was a Pokot raid on his village that drove Ekaale out. He chose to leave for a place he had seen on his seasonal travels, a place deep in Turkana territory and far from the Pokot raiders, where he could settle his family and live peacefully.
Seminomadic herding societies are found across Africa’s Middle Belt between the Sahara and the farming lands farther south, and although numbers are slippery, the African Union reckoned a decade ago that one in four Africans were pastoralists.
This is no arcane livelihood, but one that uses mobility to survive in environments characterized by erratic rainfall and frequent scarcity, where more settled lives are impossible.
It is a way of living that has persisted for many thousands of years, but it faces unprecedented pressure from growing populations, expanding cities, privatization of lands, government policies that encourage—sometimes enforce—sedentarism, and a changing climate that makes rain fleeting and pasture ever harder to find.
Recognizing these pressures, Ekaale is seeking a different kind of mobility for his children, not across geography this time but society.
“I want to put some children to school because I see life is not like before,” he tells me. “Life has to have these two things: you have animals, and you learn to live the modern way.”
It is a tension he wrestles with, torn between ensuring a future for his children and maintaining a connection to the land.
“Both are important,” he says slowly, but he worries that if his children are drawn away, “they will forget the customs of the Turkana people, how to herd livestock, and if they forget about this Turkana life, the family will disappear, it will not exist; so the children may go to town and be scattered.”
Yet he knows education is a route to diversification, to options, choices, and alternative ways of living that help to ensure the family’s survival, whether by herding, trading, fishing, farming, or laboring for wages.
“Life depends on how you grew up. I grew up in a family that takes care of animals, so I adopted the same,” he says.
“Those who are fishing or trading, maybe they have different skills, but even their life is good. And these businesses they do also depend on my livestock: when I go to sell my goat, I buy their food, so we need each other.”
After talking for some hours about movement, change, and modernity, Ekaale says he would like to honor our visit with an akiriket, a ritual feast.
Preparation is a family affair. His teenage daughters, Amung and Eiyapan, go to collect water.
There are neither taps nor boreholes nearby, yet despite the heat and the absence of rain, they find water in a knee-deep hole dug in the loose, gravelly bed of an occasional stream a mile or so away, enough to scoop and fill their jerry cans.
Lolamba picks out a sheep and drags it by its horns towards his father, who waits, perfectly erect, spear in hand. A firm downward strike to the neck and the sheep buckles, bleeds, dies.
The children help gut and clean the carcass, which is placed, whole and unskinned, upon a pyre of burning sticks; then they retire, for only initiated men may partake of the feast.
Guests sit behind a crescent of neatly piled stones, separated into their respective generation sets—either Those of the Mountain, ngimor, or Those of the Leopard, ngirisae—and arranged in order of seniority.
In front of them, Ekaale places choice chunks of liver, kidney, and meat, all sliced and roasted right on the coals.
As an uninitiated male, I may not take a place at the stone crescent, nor may the photographer, who is female, but we are permitted to sit close by and share the feast.
The collision of modernity and tradition in Turkana creates stress, but also opportunity, and pastoralists are nothing if not pragmatic.
Behind Ekaale’s homestead, the conical Moru Sipo Hill rears up to the south, a prominence high enough that a mobile phone company chose to build a 4G relay station on its summit.
As a result, while there’s neither electricity nor water nor roads, it is possible to livestream soccer matches and watch YouTube videos without glitching.
Late at night, Ekaale talks loudly and raucously with his visitors, their faces lit by mobile phone screens and conversations routinely interrupted by jarring, jangling ringtones.
Mobile phones have made the sharing of information easier and faster, making them an essential tool of the pastoralist’s trade.
Ekaale charges his with a small solar panel and keeps it close at all times, clutched in his hand or wrapped in the waistband of his sarong.
Together they discuss the changing price of livestock, the transformative value of a motorcycle, and that one time, many years ago, when Ekaale traveled far south to Kitale, in Kenya’s lush, green farming highlands, just to see what it was like.
The chatter and laughter float through the night’s silence, drifting across the sand, gravel, rock, and thorn of a landscape that still guides the lives of Turkana’s pastoralists, a landscape whose beauty, complexity, and multilayered meanings Ekaale has offered me a glimpse of.
But there is still more to be revealed here, beneath the earth where lie the buried understandings of an ancient landscape and the deep history of Ekaale’s—and our—ancestors.
A WHALE IN THE DESERT Tracing Paths of Migration in Turkana @emergence_zine @t_mcconnell [continued] https://j.mp/3GvtUVr
Fifteen miles north of Moru Sipo Hill lies the dark ridgeline that is visible from Ekaale’s home. This basalt-and-sandstone promontory, known as Lothagam, is cast adrift some miles to the east of a continuous spine of volcanic highlands that stretches southwards from the Napudet Hills and runs parallel to Lake Turkana’s western shore.
It includes Moru Sipo, where the range widens, then tapers, before making a broad eastward turn towards Lake Turkana and the Loriu Hills of Ekaale’s childhood.
Lothagam’s striking isolation has drawn people for millennia; it is a place replete with history, a palimpsest of lives lived, if you know where—and how—to look.
Francis Ekai is trying to teach me. It is a little after eight on a Tuesday morning, and a light wind is blowing across Lothagam. Though still early, it is approaching eighty degrees.
On the bleached plains of hardy acacias and thorny, ankle-high shrubs that stretch out in every direction around the rocky ridge, homesteads are sparsely scattered, each a fenceless little collection of thatch huts.
Here and there across the bone-dry vastness, boys guide their families’ goats and sheep as dust devils twist by.
The scene might appear timeless, but it is the opposite. It bursts with time, the landscape fractures under the pressure of time.
Tectonics have lifted and torn the Rift Valley, a process that continues today, pulling the continent inexorably apart, continually reshaping the rift.
In this restless terrain, Ekai, who is forty-one, moves across a shifting geography that encompasses a deep history stretching back through eras.
Ekai grew up in a place called Nariokotome, a small town over a hundred miles to the north, between the lake and the mountains.
In 1984, archaeologists working in Nariokotome’s dry riverbed discovered a skeleton; its undeveloped bones and the milk teeth still embedded in its upper jaw showed it to be a boy of around eleven years, while the volcanic ash from which the skeleton was unearthed dated it to 1.5 million years ago.
After the discovery of “Turkana Boy,” the most complete Homo erectus skeleton yet found, Nariokotome became somewhat famous, and archaeological digs began to take place regularly there.
Ekai recalls being about nine years old and curious when he climbed a tree to watch the scientists at work with their shovels and brushes, their picks and sieves.
One day he was eating fruit and spitting the seeds to the ground when one of the archaeologists saw him and urged him to lend a hand. So he did.
He was excited and enthralled by all the history beneath his feet, beneath his home, and after that Ekai would often help out or just hang around, watching and learning.
When he finished school, he became a field assistant with the Turkana Basin Institute, formalizing his interest in work that has since taken him far from his father’s homestead, crisscrossing the land and the lake in search of fossils.
Discerning meanings in the shards and fragments of bone and stone that litter the land is a practice, an embodiment of knowledge, as much as it is learned.
Sharp-eyed and acutely attuned to variations in the surface, Ekai walks with his thumbs hooked in the shoulder straps of his rucksack, slightly stooped, eyes set upon the ground in front of him.
When something attracts his attention, he pauses and strokes his chin. With the nonchalance of a city stroller spotting discarded trash, Ekai points out pieces of fossil tusk and ancient hippo teeth among the gravel and pebbles.
Quotidian to him, these are confounding, mind-bending, time-twisting artifacts to the occasional visitor: millions of years in the making, buried in the earth, transformed into rock, and resurfaced by wind and rain.
Close by, a layered wall of sedimentary red sandstone disgorges the petrified remains of a Miocene elephant from its rocky belly, the white shards cascading like icefall.
We follow sandy meanders through a cataclysmic landform. Surfaces are tilted and smashed, the dark basalt carapace shattered, weather-eroded gullies and fissures segmenting ochre scarps and maroon cliffs.
Only in the pauses between gusts of warm wind is the depth of the silence audible: neither engines nor voices, just birdsong and flies.
Ekai takes long, loping, sure-footed strides up inclines scattered with smooth pebbles. I scramble after him, sinking in sand, stumbling over rocks, barely able to keep track of where my feet are falling, let alone join the search for fossils.
Ahead of me, Ekai pauses on a cracked and cratered plateau in a shattered amphitheater, framed to east and west by dark volcanic ridges.
There is a circle of football-sized boulders, in the center of which stand four still-larger smooth, oblong rocks, some upright, some listing. The material is nature’s, but the architecture is not.
The diameter of the rock circle is 112 paces and there are several smaller circles, similar in design, nearby. Each one, Ekai explains, is a tomb.
Discerning meanings in the shards and fragments of bone and stone that litter the land is a practice, an embodiment of knowledge, as much as it is learned.
Seven thousand years ago, reaching this place would have required a boat, for Lake Turkana was three hundred feet deeper in its shallow basin, its surface far larger, its now-distant waters lapping up to the outcropping.
Lothagam was a peninsula, this plateau a beach. But the world then—as now—was changing fast. As the glaciers retreated from Europe and North America, the climate was changing here too.
For ten millennia, rainfall had increased across Africa, making the Sahara a fertile grassland. Ancient rock art found deep in the desert, among the towering dunes of Chad and Niger, renders giraffe and cattle where they are no longer found, where now only the hardiest nomads roam with their camel.
Lake Turkana was many times its modern size, its waters higher and fresher while, a little to the south, a thousand-foot-deep lake, known as Suguta, had grown in a broad forested valley. It is inhospitable desert now.
Five thousand years ago, the Sahara rangelands were drying and Lake Turkana was receding at the end of what is known as the African Humid Period.
The people of Lothagam faced unprecedented change and an uncertain future driven by the inexorable forces of plate tectonics, celestial mechanics, and changing climate.
For generations, people had hunted, gathered, and fished at Lothagam, an equilibrium that mirrored the stable climate, but environmental change brought new threats and opportunities.
As the lake retreated, they were forced to move with it to survive. At the same time, driven by the same climatic changes, new migrants were arriving from the north, from the Sahara’s proto-desert, bringing with them livestock and transhumant pastoralism as a way of life.
As the climate warmed and dried, migration brought new survival strategies, new ways of living more attuned to the shifting reality. The archaeological record has not yet revealed what happened when the two communities encountered each other.
Perhaps the newcomers displaced the original inhabitants—peaceably or with violence?—or maybe they shared knowledge, intermarried, and merged, but it was at this moment that the old ways disappeared, receding with the lake, as herding became the dominant way of life in Turkana.
The Lothagam cemetery was a response to this turbulence, an attempt to sink an anchor in a sea of change.
Lothagam’s history and the dawn of pastoralism in the Rift Valley is now being uncovered by scientists.
Ekai worked here for years with an international team of archaeologists who excavated the burial chambers of what emerged as a communal cemetery as old as Stonehenge.
Inside they found the remains of hundreds of women, children, and men. The bodies were buried with intricate grave goods—ivory rings; perforated hippo tusks; a headdress decorated with gerbil teeth; stone earrings and pendants fashioned from amazonite, zeolite, and hematite; and ceramics.
There is no evidence of violence, and no way of telling who was chief, who serf. Lothagam, it seems, was not a memorial to the rich and powerful, like the ziggurats of Mesopotamia or the pyramids of Egypt, but a place to commemorate a community’s ancestors.
The rapidly changing climatic conditions brought stress, and the burial site, it is thought, “helped mitigate social and economic uncertainties in a frontier situation,” write archaeologist Elisabeth Hildebrand et al. in a 2018 paper.
The Lothagam promontory, then as now, was a landmark visible for scores of miles around, a cresting wave of volcanic ridges bursting from the surrounding plains, a location as fixed and precise as a modern-day GPS.
For Turkana’s ancient hunter-gatherers, it was a symbol of stasis and fixity; for the pastoralists who followed, and those like Ekaale who still move across the land, it is a compass point, a lodestar.
But it has a deeper history, too, for the burial site is dug into the layers of lake sediment and volcanic ash that have preserved our fossil past and are slowly revealing our origins.
The story of Turkana and the story of us are entangled, our deep history unspooling like a film reel projected upon the land’s dynamic screen.
It is a tale of relentless movement, adaptation, and migration, of a shifting landscape, changing climate, and restless populations.
In the 1960s, the discovery of plate tectonics revealed that the Earth’s surface was made up of islands of crust afloat on a sea of magma; that continents are cast adrift and violently reunited; that oceans grow and die; that what we see today is not what was there in eras and eons past; that the Earth, like us, is dynamic and restless—only our timescales are out of kilter.
The pulses of hominin migration out of Africa began with Homo erectus (meaning “upright man,” because he walked much as we do).
Flat-faced and heavy-browed but otherwise strikingly human, Homo erectus was a remarkably successful species, surviving for close to two million years in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Far East, opportunistically moving to fill ecological niches.
Compared with the other hominins, Homo erectus had a larger head and body, legs adapted for long-distance walking and running, and a shoulder joint and muscles made for throwing.
Homo erectus may have controlled fire and created new stone technology, the distinctive Acheulean hand axes—sharp-edged, pear-shaped tools useful for meat eating—found in caves and sediments from southern Europe to eastern China.
Our anatomically modern human ancestors—sociable hunter-gatherers from the start—continued those migrations around sixty thousand years ago, meaning we have spent more of our time on Earth in Africa than beyond it.
We funneled up the Rift Valley and across the Red Sea, then spread out across the globe. Everywhere we went, we hunted megafauna to extinction and set about altering the environment to suit our needs, strategies that have reached their logical conclusion with the biodiversity, climate, and pollution crises of the Anthropocene.
Our bigger brains and problem-solving ability; our dexterousness and toolmaking; our sociability, cooperation, and communication; our talent for transforming the world around us, were all honed by the geological complexity and climatic variability of Africa’s Rift Valley.
This is the geography that made us, shaping us into the kind of adaptable, mobile creatures that could migrate out of Africa and conquer the world, for better or worse. We are everywhere now, but this is the only place we have always been.
The extent of the Earth’s geological complexity and its
staggering changes over time is illustrated by the wonderfully bizarre tale of a whale in the desert.
Seventeen million years ago a whale died, was buried in the earth, fossilized, disinterred by erosion, and returned to an altogether different surface, 2,500 feet above sea level, where it was found in the 1970s.
A WHALE IN THE DESERT Tracing Paths of Migration in Turkana @emergence_zine @t_mcconnell [further]
“How do you explain that?” asks Kenyan anthropologist Isaiah Nengo, laughing out loud. “It proved to be a real marker of the dynamism of this place.” Any model of geological change must, as Nengo puts it, “satisfy the whale.”
“The only way [the geophysicists] could get the whale in there was to bring the land closer to the ocean, and lower. What that means is, there’s been a spread with … hundreds of thousands of square kilometers added to East Africa. So, what does that mean for the things that inhabited the surface? We think it might help explain a lot of the migration, why things are coming and going.”
Lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant—every one of the animals commonly associated with Africa today is an immigrant to the continent, he points out, just as every human on the planet is an emigrant from Africa.
“When you talk about inhabitants, there’s a sense of permanence,” says Nengo, “but the lives of organisms are characterized by dynamism, which we call migration.”
For the last seven years, Nengo has led archaeological expeditions for the Turkana Basin Institute to the Napudet Hills, south of the Turkwel River that feeds Lake Turkana, and west of the desolate town of Kerio.
The hills form the northern tip of the volcanic range that stretches past Lothagam towards Moru Sipo and are, today, a forbidding moonscape that could scarcely be more different from the lush hills and impossibly fertile soils of western Kenya, from which Nengo’s family comes; or the helter-skelter city of Nairobi, where he lives part of the year; or New York’s Stony Brook University, where he is a research professor; or California, where his children, all in their twenties, are at college.
Nengo studies and teaches in Kenya and the US, sharpening his sense of the importance of migration, even as politicians outcompete one another to turn their nations into fortresses.
Both his lived experience and his scientific research show that migration and mobility are fundamental human characteristics, a fluidity forged in the crucible of Turkana.
Nengo’s ambition is to understand how the landscape, ecology, and species have changed over the millions of years of the Miocene, the roles of geology and climate in those changes, and how they set the stage for our subsequent evolution.
He believes the answers can be found here, in the Turkana basin, and nowhere else on Earth.
He compares the world to a book containing the human story, but says it is only in the Rift Valley that the book has fallen open, allowing us to read it: it is the only place where the geological conditions that create, preserve, and reveal fossils allow us to learn our deep past.
“It’s partly tectonic accidents,” says Nengo, “but also because the story is where the story is.”
One day, I accompany Nengo as he heads to a small oxide-red mound that is shaping up to be a remarkably rich site: fossiliferous, as paleontologists say.
We drive the first few miles from the field camp, where dozens of tents are erected in the shade of a doum palm forest; then, with Nengo in hiking sandals, headscarf, and a broad-rimmed fedora to protect against the sun, we strike out on foot into what he calls “fourteen million years of time.”
The wind blows hot and loud across bare black hills covered with smooth basalt rocks, like the aftermath of a colossal hailstorm. The heat is oppressive, the temperature rising with the sun, soaring to over a hundred degrees, and not falling until dusk.
During the day, the rocks can become hot enough to melt a rubber sole. The smooth pebbles roll and slide, threatening to twist ankles, while the jagged ones can puncture tires and slice boots. It is arduous walking, but Nengo is in his element, enthusiastic.
We soon pause at the site of his most famous fossil find yet—the almost complete skull of a Miocene ape—discovered in terrain so gnarly, the geologists nicknamed it “dragon’s vomit.”
At first, Nengo recalls, it appeared to be just an ancient elephant’s kneecap poking out of the rubble.
That is of no interest whatsoever to an anthropologist searching for our distant origins, seeking the lineage that split and led to African apes and the protohuman hominins.
But a little scratching in the dragon’s vomit revealed the patella to be a cranium, with the telltale brow ridges of a primate protruding below the forehead.
The skull, known as Alesi, is the oldest-known fossil ape cranium (its discovery was described in Nature in 2017). It was found during Nengo’s first season in Napudet, when he had struggled to find scientists and assistants to join the team. After Alesi, however, “more people wanted to come!” he says.
Walking on, Nengo shows me the calcified trunks of trees protruding like broken Doric columns from layers of ash many feet deep.
His colleague, the paleobotanist Rahab Kinyanjui, is working on samples to determine their species, possibly palms. “They’ve been standing there for thirteen million years,” Nengo says, gesturing towards the wood-turned-rock, static pillars in a changed landscape.
A round of petrified trunk lies split on the scree, its tree rings visible, aging an ageless tree. Scattered around the trunks are fossilized sticks, and stones imprinted with the ghostly images of ancient windfall leaves, their midribs still clear, their veins still spidering out towards gently curving margins.
I pick up a small piece of branch, just five inches long and narrower than my wrist. It looks like wood, but mineralized over millions of years, it has become denser and heavier than I expect. The dissonance is dizzying.
To Nengo, the sedimentary layers and the secrets that erosion draws from them are “nature’s way of writing a story: it lays it down chapter by chapter, page by page, and of course some are missing,” he says, smiling, “but Turkana gives you so many pages!”
Tectonics play their part in making that unique book legible, geology providing the cipher through which the deep-buried past is revealed in shards of skull and fragments of tooth.
In Turkana, an ancient lake basin with dramatically rising and falling waters created long, continuous sequences of sediments, like bathtub rings; volcanic eruptions and basalt flows layered datable ashes on top; and tectonic uplift fractured the land, exposing the past to the elements and erosion.
We continue up a steep incline and along the exposed brow of a hill. The strong wind, carpet of rocks, scarcity of trees, absence of water, and dry, sandy earth recall the recent startling and stark images beamed from Mars by NASA’s Perseverance rover.
Such is his immersion in the Miocene, it can sometimes seem as if Nengo exists in two worlds at once. In the one he pictures, Napudet is a low, lush, swampy forest populated by apes, rodents, pigs, and hippos; in the other is this blackened, denuded, sun-scorched hill across which we stumble.
As we approach a site called Red Hill, Nengo describes how his team has found the broken tooth of a rodent and the jaw of a loris-like primate.
He pauses as he talks, slowly lifting his hand and leg, imitating the loris’s lethargic movement. Red Hill lives up to its name, in color if not size: a small ochre mound among the land’s palette of beige, black, and gray.
A grid of meter squares, marked out with pink string, covers the excavated portion of the hill. Small orange flags, laid out like a Lilliputian golf course or a crime scene, mark where fossils have been found.
There are twelve in total, but only one that Nengo is interested in today: colleagues have told him they found an intact tooth, probably a pig, but maybe, “if we’re lucky,” an ape.
The story of Turkana and the story of us are entangled, our deep history unspooling like a film reel projected upon the land’s dynamic screen.
The field team has strung a tarpaulin across sticks next to the site to provide shade. Beneath it, Selina Akai, a field assistant in traditional Turkana dress—blanket hitched at her shoulder, hair shaved at the sides with a mohawk of short braids on top, neck garlanded in layer upon layer of bright beads—picks through trays of sifted earth looking for fossil fragments among the gravel.
Nengo greets them all, then steps carefully into a square in the excavation site and sits down. Next to him, three men scratch at the earth with picks fashioned from sharpened screwdrivers, sweeping the loosened dirt into a dustpan for sieving.
Eventually all the sieved and discarded earth will be collected and trucked back to the Turkana Basin Institute for washing and further sifting. It is meticulous, time-devouring work that requires a rare patience and attention to detail.
“This is very, very interesting,” Nengo says the moment he has the tooth nestled in his palm. After a minute of careful inspection, a broad smile creases his face. “Oh, my goodness! This is an ape incisor. Jesus H. Christ, hallelujah! You know what this one is? This is an upper incisor!” Nengo declares, triumphant.
“After seven years of looking, this is the first ape tooth we’ve found here,” he says, brandishing the tiny artifact between a slender finger and thumb.
His knowledge is confirmation, his excitement infectious: the team at Red Hill break into smiles and laughs. Also in the day’s haul: a bat tooth and jaw fragment.
The finds are a glimpse of former inhabitants, species that survived or succumbed, stayed or moved on, in response to the changing climate and landscape: forest creatures, savannah grazers, swamp dwellers.
That night, back at camp, there is a celebration to mark the departure of a group of Kenyan graduate students who have been working the site in recent weeks, the jubilation charged by the thrill of the day’s finds.
After a shared meal of goat stew and chapatis, the team of Kenyan scientists, students, field assistants, cooks, and cleaners join in a circle of rhythmic clapping and stamping, singing and chanting, swaying and hugging, beneath the moonlight.
A WHALE IN THE DESERT Tracing Paths of Migration in Turkana @emergence_zine @t_mcconnell [cont]
Halfway up the western shore of Lake Turkana, on the edge of a broad, shallow inlet known as Ferguson’s Gulf, lies the low-slung, hardscrabble town of Kalokol, a decrepit and squalid tin-roofed place with the feel of a waning gold rush.
On a hill overlooking Kalokol is another ancient communal burial chamber, a pillar site like the one at Lothagam, but few pay it any heed as they tear past on the last stretch of new tarmac before the road limps into town, crumbling and collapsing into the sand just before the outskirts.
Seemingly all day, trucks ferry goods into the town’s array of general stores, or clatter out loaded with fish drawn from the lake.
A concrete and sheet metal monument to donor hubris dominates Kalokol. In the 1970s the Norwegian government funded a state-of-the-art fish processing, freezing, and packing facility intended to modernize and expand the regional industry, but erratic and expensive electricity and Turkana’s remoteness from Kenya’s biggest markets meant it soon floundered, and was abandoned.
Turkana’s fishermen shrugged off this failed and unwanted intervention; local technology abides.
On the lake shore, among the piles of sticky guts, wind-blown drifts of scales, and racks of split fish laid out to dry like the repeating pattern on a kitenge fabric,
Gibson Nakusi repairs his handmade nets. He fishes using a traditional rough raft fashioned from five lengths of unsawed palm trunk lashed together with rope.
Lean at forty-six, Nakusi propels himself across the chop of Ferguson’s Gulf sitting straight-legged and bolt upright, gripping a long-handled wooden paddle. He wears a T-shirt which he bought from the local mitumba—one of the secondhand clothes markets where sacks of America’s and Europe’s castoffs are piled up and sold—because it features a man with a swordfish dangling from a long rod. It reads “Bill’s Bait & Beer Shop.”
A lifelong fisherman, Nakusi has seen waves of newcomers migrating to the lake with every drought, as herders who have lost their livestock turn to fishing to make ends meet.
The Turkana word for fishing, akichem, also means to be without livestock, or destitute. “Those with no animals come to fish,” he says.
It doesn’t matter what the rains do, or whether the pasture is picked bare, he says, “because if you work, you can get money from fishing.”
Ewoi Edukon is among them. His herd dwindled with each successive punishing drought until, with no livestock left and a hungry family to provide for, he decided to make the long northward journey to the lake.
In his mid-forties, Edukon had lived his life a proud pastoralist, with a wife, three children, and a herd of goats and donkeys. “It was a good life, but I lost it all. My livestock was swept away by drought,” he says.
He fishes yet does not regard himself as a fisherman. “I am only fishing for a short time to get some money. My life is not here, it is on the other side,” Edukon says with a wistful glance to the south.
The lake draws economic migrants from farther afield too. There is Rose Wasika, who arrived from Kitale with her sister Margaret just a few weeks ago.
They set up shop, scaling, gutting, slashing, washing, and drying tilapia to sell to traders. The cleaned fish hang from a line, like laundry.
Then there is a towering, garrulous man from Nairobi, whom everyone calls “Big Joe” and who worked in city hotels until the pandemic shut them down.
He oversees the loading into his Land Cruiser of immense bales of fish, each one rolled by two men and lifted by four.
And there is Ali Kitongana, who has come a thousand miles from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who speaks Lingala, Swahili, French, and English and makes a living smoking and selling catfish and mudfish to Congolese refugees in Kakuma camp, a few hours’ drive away.
Others have migrated to the banks of the Turkwel and Kerio Rivers, where flood-recession farming and irrigation-fed agriculture are possible.
Farming, or akitare, like fishing, is an alternative livelihood and a way of diversifying survival strategies.
Sometimes that diversification occurs within families, with a brother herding, a sister farming, a cousin seeking wage labor in a town or city, while one child tends livestock and another attends school, spread betting against disaster.
“Migration is critical for survival,” Ikal Angelei tells me when we meet one afternoon to share a pot of freshly brewed coffee at her off-the-grid home on the expanding outskirts of Lodwar, the region’s capital.
Angelei is a prominent voice in—and from—Turkana. A political and environmental activist and a winner of the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize, she is an iconoclast in northern Kenya’s conservative, pastoral patriarchy: an outspoken, educated, and independent woman with bleach-tipped dreads brushing the nape of her neck and a T-shirt that reads “Pussy Power.”
Angelei has seen Kenya and the world yet would not live anywhere but Turkana. She recalls trips with her father when she was a girl, when they would travel across the rock-strewn countryside to find a shady copse of trees beside a meandering seasonal river, a contrast that remains spellbinding. “It’s finding serenity within this harshness that really grabs me,” she says.
Angelei’s home lies at the foot of Mount Lodwar’s steep, tapering slopes. As I stand in her garden, the hill’s near-perfect pyramidal shape reminds me of Moru Sipo, where I left Ekaale with his family and his livestock.
The two do not know each other, but they have much in common: a deep knowledge and love of the landscape, a recognition of the way it compels movement for survival, and an understanding of how to navigate its geography, to exist within its harshness.
Pastoralism, she says, is “very pragmatic … very rational.” Angelei lives in town but keeps livestock in herds around Turkana, as a kind of mobile bank account.
She distinguishes between pastoralist migration in search of water and pasture, and contemporary migration in search of economic opportunity, a separation akin to Ekaale’s description of awosit and aramaken in his own life.
Both types of migration are about survival, but there is more to this movement than making a living.
“The conversation on migration has always focused on the livelihood, but it is linked to social structures that go beyond water and pasture,” she says, networks that are often controlled by women who leave their families when they marry but retain ties to siblings and parents by bending seasonal migration to fit the web of family.
Angelei is forty, and over her lifetime she has seen the undoubtable shifts in climate as rainy seasons have shortened and droughts deepened.
But she has a more complex understanding than many people of the role of climate change in northern Kenya, identifying a range of exacerbating short-term factors.
Where sparse plains and silence spread out from Ekaale’s homestead, the fringe of the growing city of Lodwar draws ever closer to Angelei’s.
Daily scheduled flights connect Lodwar to Kenya’s south, new tarmac roads cut journey times to a fraction of what they were just a few years ago, colossal pylons carry wind-powered electricity to the capital, and mobile phone masts put almost everyone in touch and online.
If you pass a 4×4 in Turkana, chances are it belongs to either an international aid agency or the government: the county is one of the poorest in Kenya and has long attracted the interest of well-meaning missionaries and charities, and with them, unintended consequences.
Angelei argues that continuous years of emergency handouts meant food aid became a reliable source of sustenance, creating a dependency that left people hungrier than before when the NGOs departed or donor funding dried up.
“People are hungry, but the sources of support are less,” she says.
At the same time, development projects sank boreholes all over Turkana to provide fresh water, and built irrigation and agricultural schemes that drained rivers and sucked up the groundwater, causing traditional water holes to dry up, shortening downstream access, and upsetting traditional migration.
“Migration patterns were based on water, pasture, salt licks, so when you get to a place and there’s no water, you’re stuck, because someone sank a borehole upstream and it has impacted downstream,” she says.
This disruption renders traditional knowledge of the landscape useless, stripping away one more essential survival strategy for pastoralists such as Ekaale.
One of Angelei’s biggest fears, she tells me, is another form of obstruction, of meddling with the flow of water on which life here depends: the ongoing construction of a series of immense hydroelectric dams and commercial irrigation projects by the Ethiopian government on the Omo River, which feeds Lake Turkana from the north.
She warns that the lake’s future might be a catastrophic drying out, like that of the disappeared Aral Sea or the diminished Lake Chad. “Those risks are still to come,” she says.
In epochs past, Lake Turkana grew and shrank, like slow-motion breathing—at times it was an immense sea, at other times an arid confluence—as tectonics and climate acted on the land, but in the Anthropocene, we are causing geological changes on human timescales.
The velocity may prove too much for us, and the planet. That a region so deeply defined by migration and dynamism should be threatened by anthropogenic obstruction seems a sadly appropriate epitaph for our times.
Without the lake, there is no life in Turkana—not for Ekaale and his family, not for Angelei, not for the residents of Kalokol. Without the lake, there would have been no possibility of survival for the hunter-gatherers of Lothagam, nor the pastoralist immigrants from the north.
Without the lake, its sediments and underlying geology, our ancient past would be indecipherable, invisible even to the likes of Ekai and Nengo. This is the modern Turkana, a story that is still being written, even as Nengo and his fellow scientists uncover layer after layer of ancient chronicles.
Today, Africa continues to be a major source of human migration. Roughly one in seven of the world’s 281 million international migrants are African, according to the United Nations.
They are driven by conflict, by climate change, by opportunity, by curiosity, but their movement is not often seen for what it is: a complex, contemporary iteration of an ancient strategy, a mirroring of past migrations.
Rather, their movement is obstructed by those who choose to forget that we were all migrants once. Turkana reminds us.
The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan @NewYorker
Law & Politics
On April 14th, President Joe Biden ended the longest war in United States history, announcing that the last remaining American troops in Afghanistan would leave by September 11th.
In the following weeks, the Taliban conquered dozens of rural districts and closed in on major cities. By mid-June, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—the brittle democratic state built by Afghan modernizers, nato soldiers, and American taxpayers after the 9/11 attacks—appeared to be in a death spiral.
Yet its President, Ashraf Ghani, insisted to his cabinet that the Republic would endure. In every meeting, “he assured us, and encouraged us,” Rangina Hamidi, the acting minister of education, said. Ghani reminded them, “America didn’t make a promise that they would be here forever.”
On June 23rd, Ghani and his advisers boarded a chartered Kam Air jet that would take them from Kabul to Washington, D.C., to meet with Biden.
As the plane flew above the Atlantic, they sat on the cabin floor reviewing talking points for the meeting.
The Afghan officials knew that Biden regarded their government as hopelessly fractious and ineffective.
Still, Ghani recommended that they present “one message to the Americans” of resilient unity, which might persuade the U.S. to give them more support in their ongoing war with the Taliban.
Amrullah Saleh, the First Vice-President, who said that he felt “backstabbed” by Biden’s decision to withdraw, reluctantly agreed to “stick to a rosy narrative.”
Biden welcomed Ghani and his top aides to the Oval Office on the afternoon of June 25th. “We’re not walking away,” Biden told Ghani.
He pulled from his shirt pocket a schedule card on which he’d written the number of American lives lost in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11, and showed it to Ghani.
“I appreciate the American sacrifices,” Ghani said. Then he explained, “Our goal for the next six months is to stabilize the situation,” and described the circumstances in Afghanistan as a “Lincoln moment.”
“The most important ask I have for Afghanistan is that we have a friend in the White House,” Ghani said.
“You have a friend,” Biden replied.
Ghani asked for specific military assistance. Could the U.S. provide more helicopters? Would American contractors continue to offer logistical support to the Afghan military? Biden’s answers were vague, according to Afghan officials in the room.
Biden and Ghani also discussed the possibility of a peace agreement between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban.
American diplomats had been talking with the Taliban for years, to negotiate a U.S. withdrawal and to foster separate peace talks between the insurgents and Kabul.
But the talks had fallen apart, and the Taliban seemed determined to seize Afghanistan by force. The likelihood of the Taliban “doing anything rational is not very high,” Biden said, according to the Afghan officials present.
While Ghani and his aides met with Biden, Shaharzad Akbar, the chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, conferred in Washington with Americans working in human rights, democracy, and development.
She recalled being stunned to hear that many of the Americans had already “concluded that Afghanistan was a lost cause, and had sort of made peace with themselves.”
They asked her what contingency plans she was making to flee Kabul and go into exile. After the official visit, she stayed in the U.S. through July 4th, and listened to Biden’s speech marking the holiday, in which he said, “We’re about to see our brightest future.”
“I ended up crying a lot that evening,” Akbar said. She returned to Kabul and went from embassy to embassy requesting visas for her staff.
On May 10, 1968, in Paris, the United States opened peace talks with North Vietnam. President Richard Nixon, who regarded the negotiations mainly as political cover for America’s withdrawal from the war, knew that the terms under discussion would leave South Vietnam, America’s ally, vulnerable.
In October, 1972, Nixon asked Henry Kissinger, his national-security adviser, about the likelihood of South Vietnam’s survival. “I think there is one chance in four,” Kissinger told him.
“Well, if they’re that collapsible, maybe they just have to be collapsed,” Nixon said.
In January, 1973, the United States signed a pact called the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam and withdrew all its combat forces.
Two years later, North Vietnam and Vietcong guerrillas conquered South Vietnam. Helicopters evacuated the last American personnel from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon.
The Islamic Republic’s last chapter followed a strikingly similar course. For years, peace talks were stalled by the Taliban’s refusal to speak with the Afghan government.
But in 2018 President Donald Trump, determined to end the war with or without the Afghan President’s involvement, appointed a special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to negotiate directly with the Taliban, which had representatives in Doha.
Khalilzad was a sixty-seven-year-old Afghan-born diplomat, who had earned a doctorate in political science at the University of Chicago and had served in several Republican Administrations.
From 2003 to 2005, he was George W. Bush’s Ambassador to Afghanistan. His instructions were clear: make a deal with the Taliban that would allow for a quick American military withdrawal.
In February, 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed an accord called the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan: the U.S. pledged to pull out all its combat troops by May of 2021 if the Taliban repudiated Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, entered into good-faith talks with the Islamic Republic, and sought to reduce violence in the country.
The Taliban also promised not to attack U.S. and nato troops who were preparing to leave. They could continue to attack Afghan forces, however. Many of the provisions were not made public, and the Islamic Republic was not a party to the agreement.
By then, the alliance between Washington and Kabul—once bathed in the aspirational language of democracy, women’s rights, and nation-building—had become embittered by recriminations and mutual exhaustion.
The peace accord between the U.S. and the Taliban made things dramatically worse. It contained a series of secret written and verbal agreements, including a contentious provision barring the U.S. from helping Afghan troops in their offensive operations against the Taliban.
Ghani, who was largely cut out of the process, struggled to understand what the United States had agreed to and why, and, even when he did understand, he objected vigorously.
Later, when the Taliban failed to deliver on commitments that it had made to the U.S., the Trump Administration ignored the violations. “Ghani felt lied to,” Hamdullah Mohib, his national-security adviser, said. “He was undermined.”
Throughout the negotiations, Ghani maintained back channels to American politicians who were supportive of the war, such as the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who had long called for America’s continued presence in Afghanistan.
After Ghani’s talks with Graham, the senator would regularly call Mike Pompeo, Trump’s Secretary of State, who at one point accused Ghani of “mobilizing Washington against” the Trump Administration.
The view of many State Department officials, including nonpartisan career diplomats, was that Ghani had little interest in negotiating with the Taliban. “He preferred the status quo,” Khalilzad said. “It kept him in power.”
In January, Biden inherited this fragmenting compact. He could prolong America’s military deployment, regardless of the deal, or he could continue down the exit ramp that Trump had built.
Biden, who as Vice-President under Barack Obama had opposed sending large numbers of troops to fight in the war, was openly doubtful that Afghanistan could ever become a secure and governable nation.
At times, he seemed as cold-blooded about the Islamic Republic as Nixon had been about South Vietnam.
His decision to abruptly withdraw the remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan, culminating in the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country—and the chaotic evacuation of more than a hundred thousand people from Hamid Karzai International Airport—is an indelible part of his record.
For Afghanistan’s population of about thirty-eight million, the defeat has been incomparably more consequential. The Taliban are reimposing strict Sharia law on the country, which has lost billions of dollars in foreign aid, and the nation is now gripped by a spreading famine.
The debates and decisions in Washington, Kabul, and Doha that preceded the Islamic Republic’s fall took place largely in private.
Hundreds of pages of meeting notes, transcripts, memoranda, e-mails, and documents, as well as extensive interviews with Afghan and American officials, present a dispiriting record of misjudgment, hubris, and delusion from the very start.
The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan @NewYorker [continued]
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The first serious attempt to negotiate with the Taliban began in November, 2010.
Nine years earlier, the U.S. had overthrown the Taliban’s government, which had harbored the Al Qaeda terrorists who were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
The Taliban had mounted an insurgency to try to return to power, and Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to the region, hoped to persuade them to stop fighting and to enter Afghan politics.
American diplomats and Taliban negotiators engaged in talks about a possible peace settlement.
But the Taliban refused to work with the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai—the country’s first-ever democratically elected head of state—seeing him as an illegitimate puppet.
Karzai, in turn, objected to America’s conferring legitimacy on extremist rebels bent on overthrowing his government.
“You betrayed me!” Karzai shouted at Ryan Crocker, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, during a meeting in late 2011.
Obama ultimately deferred to Karzai, and by mid-2013 serious discussions with the Taliban about power sharing had ended.
Before Obama left office, he drastically reduced the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan from its peak of about a hundred thousand.
But he left eighty-four hundred American soldiers on a mission of indefinite duration, to strike Al Qaeda and a branch of the Islamic State, and to aid Afghan forces fighting the Taliban.
In 2017, President Trump appointed General H. R. McMaster as national-security adviser. McMaster recommended more U.S. airpower and intelligence aid to support Afghan forces, and a tougher approach to Pakistan, the Taliban’s historical protectors.
Trump agreed to the strategy, and seemed to accept that peace between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic might not be achievable.
“Nobody knows if or when that will ever happen,” he said that August. He promised that U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan until they had defeated Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
“The consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable,” he said.
But when the strategy failed to quickly turn the war around Trump began looking for a way out. (Later, he complained, “I should have followed my instincts, not my generals!”)
The following year, Trump fired McMaster and replaced him with John Bolton, an ardent conservative and Fox News commentator who had served in previous Republican Administrations.
He also appointed Mike Pompeo, his C.I.A. director, as Secretary of State. During the summer of 2018, Pompeo consulted with Khalilzad, who, in September, became the Administration’s envoy to negotiate with the Taliban.
“It was thought that nobody knows the Afghan situation, the Afghan players” better than Khalilzad, Charles Kupperman, then one of Bolton’s top advisers, said.
Also, “there weren’t a lot of other candidates.” A diplomat on Khalilzad’s staff was told that Trump wanted to leave Afghanistan in six months, but that perhaps he could be persuaded to wait as many as nine months.
Khalilzad is a little more than six feet tall and has the quick, expressive smile of an ace salesman.
“Zal is extremely likable,” Elliott Abrams, his colleague in the George W. Bush Administration, said. “Great sense of humor. Jokes all the time.”
Other officials found him evasive, particularly when he was involved in complex diplomacy.
“No shortage of talking, but a lot of difficulty in figuring out exactly what he’s talking about and why,” Crocker said, adding that Khalilzad reminded him of “a Freya Stark version of an Arab proverb: ‘It is good to know the truth and speak it, but it is better to know the truth and speak of palm trees.’ ”
According to Bolton, Trump once remarked of Khalilzad, “I hear he’s a con man, although you need a con man for this.”
Khalilzad brushed off such insults, citing an adage often attributed to Harry S. Truman: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”
In October, 2018, Khalilzad flew to Kabul, where he met Ghani at the Arg palace, an eighty-three-acre compound housing the Afghan President’s offices and residence.
They had known each other for nearly fifty years. As teen-agers in Kabul during the late nineteen-sixties, they had joined the American Field Service high-school exchange program. (Ghani went to Lake Oswego, Oregon, and Khalilzad to Ceres, California.)
Throughout the years, according to American diplomats who worked with them, their relationship began to resemble a sibling rivalry.
When Ghani ran for President in 2014, he bridled at indications that Khalilzad might be exploring his own bid, which Khalilzad denied.
In meetings, they bantered in a patois of Dari and English. In private, each seemed convinced that the other suffered from excessive ego and ambition.
Ghani was once a planner at the World Bank and a naturalized American. After the Taliban fell, he returned to Afghanistan, where he served as Hamid Karzai’s finance minister.
He left government in 2004, and five years later, after giving up his American citizenship, he ran for President against Karzai and lost.
When Karzai was ineligible for another term, in 2014, Ghani ran again, and he narrowly beat Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, in an election marred by allegations of fraud.
After negotiations, Abdullah became Afghanistan’s Chief Executive.
Ghani earned a doctorate in anthropology at Columbia, and he sometimes seemed to approach his Presidency as if it were graduate school.
Between his two residences in Kabul, he cumulatively maintained a personal library of about seven thousand books, and during meetings he often referenced academic literature.
He sought to empower those whom he referred to as Afghanistan’s “stakeholders”—human-rights activists, Islamic scholars, media companies, and businesses.
He populated his wartime administration with other technocrats who had graduate degrees from universities abroad, and spurned traditional Afghan politicians and strongmen, who he thought had brought the country to ruin.
American diplomats and military commanders continually pressed Ghani to align with Karzai, Abdullah, and figures such as Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had an armed following and a record of alleged human-rights abuses.
Much of the strength of the military opposition to the Taliban resided with such individuals, and it was hard to see how Ghani could strike a deal without them.
“He’s just not a good politician,” James Cunningham, who served as the U.S. Ambassador in Kabul during Ghani’s first term, said. “There are lots of things I do admire about him, but he wasn’t able to find the political skills necessary to build coalitions and partnerships with people who disagreed with him.”
During his initial meeting with Khalilzad at the Arg palace, Ghani delivered a long PowerPoint presentation about the obstacles to peace.
He envisioned that the Islamic Republic and the United States would negotiate together, sitting across from the Taliban, an idea that Khalilzad found plainly unrealistic.
For nearly a decade, the Taliban had insisted that they wanted to talk only to the U.S., to secure the withdrawal of nato troops, which they regarded as an occupying force.
Khalilzad and many other diplomats believed that peace negotiations between Ghani’s government and the Taliban would have to come after the U.S. had agreed to leave and the Taliban had pledged, in return, to engage in such talks.
After the meeting, Khalilzad flew to Pakistan, where he met with guerrilla leaders. When Ghani heard about the meeting, after it was over, he exploded.
He was known for having a temper. “He would become emotional and start shouting,” Yasin Zia, a four-star Afghan general who was appointed chief of Army staff in 2020, recalled.
“In a war, this type of behavior will not help you.” American diplomats sometimes regarded these flareups as manufactured outrage, designed to slow down any negotiations that might undermine Ghani’s authority.
The mutual distrust between Khalilzad and Ghani shaped—and distorted—U.S.-Afghan relations for the next three years.
The United States and the Taliban opened formal negotiations on January 22, 2019. The participants met in downtown Doha, in a cylindrical glass tower that houses Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Khalilzad led the American delegation; Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a diplomat who briefly participated in talks with Obama Administration negotiators, in 2011, helped lead the Taliban team.
“War has gone on too long,” Stanikzai said, in an opening statement. “We have shed millions of gallons of blood. We want peace in Afghanistan through negotiations.”
Abdullah Amini, a veteran adviser to U.S. military commanders in Kabul, who had lost many relatives during the long conflict, audibly wept as he translated Stanikzai’s remarks for the American delegation.
Khalilzad had conceived an accord that consisted of four parts:
the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan; the Taliban would guarantee that Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other terrorist groups would not operate against the U.S.; the Taliban and the Islamic Republic would negotiate a power-sharing agreement; and there would be a ceasefire.
The four parts were interdependent—or as Khalilzad often put it, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.”
At first, both sides were deferential. “We can withdraw half by the end of April,” Khalilzad said, referring to U.S. forces.
Stanikzai was just as quick to offer assurances about counterterrorism: “We will guarantee that we will not allow Al Qaeda to attack you.”
But when Khalilzad proposed a nationwide ceasefire and power-sharing negotiations between the Taliban and Kabul, Stanikzai balked.
“We understand that we cannot rule Afghanistan alone and we need help in reaching a negotiated settlement,” he said.
But he first wanted a deal ratifying a U.S. troop departure in exchange for the Taliban’s counterterrorism promises.
They went back and forth for days. “Washington insists on a comprehensive ceasefire,” Khalilzad said,
in the final session. Eventually, the Taliban envoys said that if the U.S. pledged to withdraw they would stop attacking U.S. and allied nato forces, but that the Taliban’s war to overthrow Ghani’s government would continue.
The Taliban would consider a ceasefire with Kabul only as an agenda item in future talks among the Afghan parties.
This was far from what American negotiators had wanted. U.S. forces were in Afghanistan partly to defend the Islamic Republic from its armed enemies; their mission’s name was Resolute Support.
American commanders believed that it would be both dangerous and dishonorable to leave the war without a political settlement among the Afghans and a durable ceasefire.
But Khalilzad was worried that a hard-line approach would stall the talks and encourage Trump to abandon the Islamic Republic even more abruptly. He suggested that they return to the dispute later.
Toward the end of February, Khalilzad arrived in Doha, at the Sharq Village and Spa, a whitewashed Ritz-Carlton hotel on the Persian Gulf.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a founder of the Taliban, met him for lunch. Baradar had been the deputy defense minister in the Taliban government before it fell.
After Hamid Karzai was elected President, Baradar, who had gone into hiding, engaged in back-channel talks about political reconciliation between the Taliban and the new Islamic Republic, according to Afghan and American officials.
In 2010, a joint C.I.A.-Pakistani team arrested Baradar in Karachi, and Pakistan imprisoned him, later transferring him to house arrest.
After Khalilzad became Trump’s envoy, he persuaded Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s Army chief, to release Baradar as a gesture of good will.
“I’ve studied you,” Khalilzad told Baradar, according to Lisa Curtis, an Afghanistan specialist on Trump’s national-security staff, who was present at the meeting. “I know you’re a man of peace.”
“I realize that I would not be sitting at this table if it weren’t for you,” Baradar replied.
Khalilzad and Pompeo saw Baradar’s role in Doha as a sign that the Taliban were serious about the talks. (As Pompeo once told Ghani, Baradar is “a very sophisticated player.”)
The day after their lunch, Khalilzad joined Baradar in his hotel room, which overlooked a swimming pool where women were lounging in bikinis.
“You must feel like you’re in Heaven,” Khalilzad joked, invoking the commonly held Islamic belief that the afterlife offers a paradise of water and virgins. Baradar walked to the window and pulled the curtain shut.
The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan @NewYorker [cont]
Law & Politics
Negotiations between the Americans and the Taliban continued through the spring, first at the Sharq and later at Doha’s Diplomatic Club.
Baradar did not attend regularly, but Khalilzad occasionally visited him privately in his hotel room.
Khalilzad also maintained separate WhatsApp threads with members of the Taliban delegation and a few of Ghani’s aides, and occasionally messaged Ghani using Signal.
His rapid diplomatic maneuvering made it hard for other officials at the Pentagon and the White House to follow what he was doing.
One Pentagon official said that members of the negotiating team used to joke that “the most interesting exploitable piece of hardware in the world is Zal’s cell phone,” because he was constantly having discussions that no one else was privy to.
“He called it improvisational,” the official said. “To the rest of us, it seemed more like chaos.”
On April 19th, Ghani sent a letter to Pompeo complaining that he was being cut out of Khalilzad’s talks with the Taliban, and that Khalilzad had spoken to him for a total of only six minutes during a sixteen-day stretch of negotiations.
The official sessions were attended by Stanikzai and other Taliban negotiators, including former Guantánamo detainees released around the time of the Obama-era negotiations.
Morning meetings were scheduled to begin at ten-thirty; the Americans arrived early, and the Taliban usually drifted in late.
By the beginning of the summer, however, the two sides were exchanging drafts of a final agreement.
Khalilzad set July 14th as the date to announce the signing, and he began planning for immediate follow-up negotiations, in Oslo, between the Taliban and representatives of the Islamic Republic, to decide Afghanistan’s political future.
The Americans still hadn’t determined whether the Taliban would accept a ceasefire in its war against the Islamic Republic.
In early July, Molly Phee, Khalilzad’s deputy, pressed Stanikzai on this topic, which she described as an issue “of extreme importance” to the “most senior American leadership.”
Stanikzai would not budge, and he introduced a new demand: he wanted thousands of Taliban prisoners held by Ghani’s government released.
The Taliban envoys insisted that they needed the concession to convince their most hard-line factions of the benefits of peace talks.
Khalilzad said that the U.S. would try to persuade Ghani to agree to this, and when U.S. military officers in the room realized that the Taliban might get their prisoners without the Americans getting a ceasefire, they wanted to walk out, Andru Wall, a Navy commander at Resolute Support, recalled.
Khalilzad “plainly wanted a deal and seemed willing to give the Taliban almost everything,” Wall said.
“It was not clear if we had any true red lines.” On July 3rd, the draft agreement was updated to include the release of “up to” five thousand Taliban prisoners. (In return, the Taliban would release a thousand Afghan government detainees.)
A week later, General Austin S. Miller, the commander of nato forces in Afghanistan, flew into Doha, and Khalilzad met him for breakfast.
They were joined by Nader Nadery and Abdul Matin Bek, two young advisers to Ghani, who had spoken with Taliban envoys.
Nadery and Bek reported that several Taliban had boasted contemptuously about defeating America.
“They’re running with their tails between their legs,” one of the Taliban negotiators had exclaimed.
Bek later told Khalilzad to “wake up.” “Please, for God’s sake, the Taliban are not in favor of negotiations, they are not in favor of a political settlement,” he said. “They’re really on a victory march.”
Khalilzad told him not to worry. “I’ve cornered them,” he said. “There will be a political settlement.” (Khalilzad denied that this exchange took place.)
There was nothing to announce on July 14th. On August 7th, at the Diplomatic Club, the negotiating teams discussed two secret “annexes” to the main draft agreement, to resolve the remaining disputes.
One would detail the Taliban’s commitments to suppressing Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The other would attempt to link a U.S. withdrawal to a reduction in the war’s violence.
Recognizing that the Taliban would not end its military campaign against the Islamic Republic, Khalilzad proposed that all sides temporarily halt fighting in five of the country’s thirty-four provinces so that the U.S. could safely begin its withdrawal.
In the rest of Afghanistan, the war would continue, and, if the Taliban attacked Afghan units, American forces could intervene.
If the Taliban stopped attacking Afghan units in any area, the U.S. would reciprocate, and there would be a local ceasefire.
But since the U.S. had an “obligation” to defend its Afghan allies, Phee, Khalilzad’s deputy, explained, the scope of this reduction in violence would be determined by the Taliban.
“You have the power,” she said. “If you don’t attack,” then “we won’t attack.” She acknowledged that the proposal was complicated. “We’d prefer a ceasefire everywhere,” she said.
The proposal was a prescription for confusion and further conflict. Both sides accepted that the U.S. would no longer engage in “offensive” operations against the Taliban.
But the U.S. and the Taliban disagreed about the circumstances in which the U.S. could come to the defense of its allies.
The Taliban argued that Miller’s forces could strike only guerrillas who were directly involved in attacks on Afghan forces, whereas Miller considered this interpretation too narrow, and concluded that he was also allowed to act in other ways, including striking preëmptively against Taliban fighters who were planning an attack.
Either way, the U.S. concessions to the Taliban would clearly be a blow to Ghani’s military.
For years, Afghan forces had relied on U.S. bombers and artillery to back up their ground attacks, and to strike Taliban encampments and supply lines.
Now Afghan troops would be on their own during offensive campaigns, and, if they were attacked, they would face uncertainties about whether or when U.S. forces would go into action.
But Khalilzad believed that he had forged sufficient common ground to close the deal. He shared a draft text with Ghani—although, initially, not the proposed annexes, because he was worried about those sections leaking.
Ghani, predictably, objected to the draft, and he marked up the document with changes. Pompeo and Khalilzad ignored most of his edits and arranged to brief Trump on the deal on August 16th, at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Khalilzad joined Trump in a conference room, along with Vice-President Mike Pence, Bolton, and other national-security officials.
He described the Taliban’s promise that they would not allow Al Qaeda to attack the U.S. When it was noted that Ghani was unhappy with the deal, Trump said, “Why are you wasting your time going to talk to Ghani? He’s a crook.”
Trump then asked Khalilzad if he could give the Taliban “something to make them coöperate.”
“What are you talking about, Mr. President?”
“No,” Khalilzad replied. “They’re on a terrorism list. We can’t give them money.”
Trump moved on to other topics before Khalilzad could explain that the Taliban’s war against Kabul was likely to continue.
On August 25th, in Doha, the Taliban accepted final annex drafts on counterterrorism and restrictions on fighting.
The language prohibited the Taliban from attacking U.S. and nato troops as they withdrew.
“If one American dies after the deal is signed, then the deal is off,” Miller told the Taliban envoys, according to an official who was present.
As for the Taliban’s ongoing war against the Islamic Republic, Miller would take “necessary and proportionate measures” to defend Kabul’s troops when they came under attack, without engaging in “offensive” operations.
The Taliban envoys also offered verbal commitments that the American officials documented for their record.
On counterterrorism, the Taliban representatives said that they “welcome continued U.S. operations” against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. If the U.S. bombed the Islamic State, “we will hang flowers around your neck,” they said; as for Al Qaeda, they told the Americans, “Kill as many as you want.”
In a concession to Miller, the Taliban also agreed not to attack major Afghan cities or any diplomatic facilities.
In the end, the terms prioritized a safe American withdrawal. This was at a time when U.S. casualty numbers in Afghanistan had long been on the decline. U.S. and nato troops seldom participated in on-the-ground fighting; their main jobs were to protect the government, train the Afghan Army, and provide air support.
These roles were critical to the war effort, but they were also relatively low-risk. Since 2015, fewer than a dozen American soldiers had died annually in combat in Afghanistan.
The yearly death toll suffered by the Islamic Republic’s soldiers and police was estimated at more than eight thousand.
According to the United Nations, the war also claimed the lives of several thousand civilians each year.
At the end of August, Trump came up with a plan to invite the Taliban to Camp David to sign the agreement.
Then, on September 5th, a car bomb detonated in Kabul, killing about a dozen people, including Elis Angel Barreto Ortiz, a thirty-four-year-old U.S. Army sergeant.
That weekend, Trump ended the peace talks with a tweet blaming the deaths on the Taliban:
“If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway.”
Pompeo told Khalilzad, “You should come home.”
The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan @NewYorker [further]
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When Trump pulled out of the agreement, “I literally jumped for joy,” a senior White House official recalled. “I was thrilled when that tweet came out.”
Many officials throughout the government, including Bolton and other national-security aides, thought that the terms of the deal wildly advantaged the Taliban, and some were opposed to compromising altogether.
(“The idea that we could negotiate ourselves with the Taliban, excluding the Afghan government, was lunacy,” Charles Kupperman, who had become Bolton’s deputy, said.) But their victory was short-lived.
Two months later, Khalilzad’s team secured the release of two professors from the American University of Afghanistan—an American and an Australian—who had been kidnapped in 2016 and held by the Taliban’s Haqqani faction, a group with ties to Al Qaeda.
Earlier, Ghani had freed Anas Haqqani, a young member of the network. In the aftermath of these prisoner releases, Pompeo told Khalilzad to try to re-start peace talks.
On December 7th, Baradar met Khalilzad again in Doha, still seeking an American commitment to promptly leave Afghanistan.
“Our main goal is the designation of a date and an announcement” for signing the agreement, Baradar said.
They decided to sign the deal negotiated the previous summer. The Taliban promised to reduce violence for seven days before the deal was official, to demonstrate their commitment.
Pompeo called Ghani to inform him that an accord was again at hand, and only then did Ghani learn that few of his objections had been taken into account.
On February 29, 2020, at the Sheraton Grand Doha Resort, Khalilzad and Baradar, sitting on a makeshift stage, signed the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.
The accord stated that on March 10, 2020, “the Taliban will start intra-Afghan negotiations” to seek an enduring peace, and the United States pledged to pull out its combat forces by May of 2021.
Ghani, who concluded that he had no choice but to coöperate, issued a “joint declaration” with the Trump Administration, in which he endorsed the deal’s general goals while making it clear that he disagreed with the terms.
At the ceremony in Doha, Pompeo told attendees that the agreement “will mean nothing” unless all its parties “take concrete action on commitments and promises that have been made.”
Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s reclusive supreme leader, issued a statement from an unknown location, calling the American commitment to withdraw “the collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation.”
The next day, Trump called Ghani. “We’re relying on you to get this done,” he said, meaning a power-sharing deal with the Taliban. The accord was “popular among the American people,” Trump went on.
“It’s popular among my enemies as well.” Ghani replied that the key would be “verifiable action” by the Taliban to reduce their violence, but he said that he was prepared to send a team to negotiate with them.
“Great step,” Trump said. “We need to get this done. Call me if you need anything.”
Two days later, Trump called Baradar. According to an official who listened to the exchange, Trump told him, “You guys are tough fighters.” Then Trump asked, “Do you need something from me?”
“We need to get prisoners released,” Baradar said, adding that he had heard Ghani would not coöperate. Trump said that he would tell Pompeo to press Ghani.
Later that month, Pompeo met with Ghani in Kabul and urged him to be flexible about releasing the Taliban’s prisoners. But he also gave him an assurance:
“The United States is your leverage. If we do not get what we want, we will not leave,” he said. “We will only leave when there is a political resolution.”
“This clarity that you will stand with us in the negotiation is something that we have never had,” Ghani told him.
Then Pompeo qualified his earlier statement: “The only thing that will change that is if we have no progress.” Ghani did not appear to absorb this warning.
Later, he quoted Pompeo’s comment to a European diplomat, calling it a “turning point”—evidence that the U.S. truly would not abandon the Islamic Republic until there was a negotiated peace.
That spring, the Taliban submitted the names of the five thousand prisoners for whom it was demanding release before power-sharing talks could begin.
A group of U.S. intelligence officers and other officials reviewed the Taliban names and produced an “objection list,” which contained several convicted murderers, including Nargis Mohammad Hasan, an Afghan police officer born in Iran who, in 2012, had killed Joseph Griffin, an American police trainer, at the Kabul police headquarters.
Also on the list was a prisoner known as Hekmatullah, a former Afghan soldier who had killed three off-duty Australian soldiers while they were playing poker and the board game Risk.
Their cases were just two of dozens of “insider attacks”—killings of off-duty soldiers and civilians, typically by Taliban recruits—that had come to shadow the American war.
Ghani’s advisers were developing their own list of several hundred prisoners who they said were problematic—murderers, kidnappers, and drug traffickers, some on death row.
In late May, Ghani released just under a thousand prisoners, whom his advisers had identified as low-risk.
But the Taliban held firm: release all five thousand or no negotiations. “The Talibs became adamant,” Khalilzad recalled. “They knew that we were so desperate that the intra-Afghan negotiations begin.”
Rather than put more pressure on the Taliban, the Trump Administration continued to focus on getting Ghani to bend. As they wrestled over the prisoner problem, Khalilzad visited Ghani at the Arg palace, carrying a message from Trump:
“We are ready to work with President Ghani, but if there is a perception that the big picture is being sacrificed for small matters then we are ready to change our relationship.”
Ghani was unmoved. “The U.S. doesn’t owe us anything,” he told Khalilzad. “If you want to leave, then leave—no hard feelings.”
Ghani clearly preferred a long-term military alliance with Washington, and he spent much of his Presidency pleading with American envoys for more support.
But the Afghan President chafed at the expectations placed on him by the U.S.
Notionally, he was the sovereign leader of a constitutional democracy. He considered this a matter of high principle, and annoyed diplomats by often falling back on “legalistic and formalistic expressions of Afghan legitimacy,” as a senior State Department official put it.
In reality, the state that Ghani led was deeply dependent on American money and military power.
“They would give us hints about what they wanted us to do, but if we did not do those things then we would get heavy pressure,” Mohib, Ghani’s national-security adviser, said.
Ghani’s suggestions that the Republic would be fine without the U.S. were either shows of bravado or simply wishful thinking.
That July, Trump decided that he would cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by roughly half, to about four thousand. Khalilzad was disappointed: he had expected the Trump Administration to conduct a formal review of the Taliban’s compliance with the Doha deal before withdrawing more troops, but it hadn’t.
At that point, Khalilzad’s assessment was that Taliban compliance was mixed. They had refrained from attacking U.S. forces, as promised, and had reduced fedayeen-style assaults and truck bombings in cities and large district capitals. They delivered a three-day ceasefire over Eid al-Fitr in late May that mostly held up well. Yet they continued to attack Afghan forces, costing hundreds of Afghan lives.
Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Ghani in Kabul and assured him that the pullout didn’t mean that the U.S. was giving up on Afghanistan.
“We have signed up for a conditional drawdown,” he said, using language that had been given to him by Pompeo:
U.S. troops would stay until certain conditions had been met, and one of those conditions was that the Taliban and the Islamic Republic engage in negotiations.
And yet it was obvious to everyone by now that Trump could overrule his generals at any time.
On July 29th, Khalilzad and Miller, the commander of U.S. and nato forces, met with Ghani at his residence, with new assurances from Baradar.
They conveyed to Ghani that, if he released everyone on the Taliban list, the Taliban would very likely “reduce violence significantly” and start power-sharing talks right away.
Ghani recoiled at the proposition. “If the U.S. wants to release people who have death sentences, and the biggest drug traffickers in the world, then you should take responsibility for it,” he said. “I’m not.”
Eventually, Ghani found a compromise that gave the Americans what they wanted. He called a loya jirga, a traditional consultative assembly, to decide the fate of the most problematic Taliban prisoners.
In early August, the loya jirga approved the release of everyone on the Taliban’s list, including Hasan and the other prisoners on the “objection list.”
(An Afghan intelligence official said that, weeks after Hasan was released, someone from the F.B.I. asked if she could be recaptured, but she had already fled to Iran.)
On September 12th, at the Sharq resort, intra-Afghan talks were formally inaugurated, six months after the Doha accord had specified.
The group of twenty-one delegates sent by Kabul had been preparing for months, like athletes training for a big season perpetually delayed, and a German foundation had delivered seminars on how to negotiate for peace.
But, at the Sharq, the Kabul team found that the Taliban were exceedingly stubborn. It took more than two months to resolve one agenda item.
The Taliban “were feeling a kind of pride that they had defeated the United States,” Habiba Sarabi, one of the delegates, recalled.
At the same time, the guerrillas mounted offensives in Kandahar and Helmand that were clearly “violations in spirit, if not the written word” of the Doha accord, Miller said.
During the last three months of 2020, after the prisoner releases, violence spiked across Afghanistan, and civilian casualties rose by forty-five per cent, compared with 2019.
The onslaught “exacerbated the environment of fear and paralyzed many parts of society,” the U.N. reported.
The Taliban also protested many American strikes carried out in support of Afghan forces, calling them a violation of the Doha accord’s annex on managing combat.
Like aggressive corporate litigators seeking to drown their opponents in paper, the guerrillas filed more than sixteen hundred complaints to Khalilzad’s team, and used them to justify their intensifying military campaign against Kabul.
The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan @NewYorker [continued]
When Joe Biden ran for Senate in 1972, at the age of twenty-nine, he campaigned on his opposition to the Vietnam War.
He did not claim that the war was immoral; rather, he believed that it was “merely stupid and a horrendous waste of time, money and lives based on a flawed premise,” as he later wrote in his memoir.
Biden has approached the Afghan war with similar skepticism. In 2009, as Vice-President, Biden met Karzai, the Afghan President at the time, who urged him to work harder to end Pakistan’s support for the Taliban.
“Mr. President,” Biden replied, according to Karzai and another Afghan present, “Pakistan is fifty times more important to the United States than Afghanistan.”
In 2015, Ghani and Abdullah joined Biden for breakfast in Washington, where he told them that the Afghan war was “unwinnable.”
According to Mohib, Ghani’s national-security adviser, Afghan officials were left convinced that if Biden were ever President “he will probably want to withdraw.”
After Biden was elected, in November, 2020, he named Jake Sullivan as national-security adviser and Antony Blinken as Secretary of State.
Both men had years of experience working in government, and they were well acquainted with the miserable set of policy options in Afghanistan.
It was unclear whether Biden would follow Trump’s deal to the letter, abandon it, or make adjustments in response to the Taliban’s violence.
During the Presidential transition, Sullivan, Blinken, and other advisers sent Biden a memo reporting that the talks with the Taliban weren’t going anywhere.
Khalilzad had apparently failed to get the Taliban and the Islamic Republic to work together, but Biden asked him to stay on as special representative at least through the spring.
He knew all the players, and if the Biden Administration wanted to meet the Doha accord’s May 1st deadline for a full U.S. troop withdrawal, it would have to work quickly.
As soon as Biden took office, Mohib sought a meeting at the White House, but was told that only a phone call would be possible.
Mohib, who had earned a doctorate in electrical engineering in Britain and had served as Afghanistan’s Ambassador in Washington from 2015 to 2018, had been Ghani’s national-security adviser for three years.
Methodical, calm, and hard to read, he was intensely loyal to Ghani, whose ideas inspired him, but he was increasingly seen as the instrument—if not the instigator—of Ghani’s micromanaging.
On January 22nd, Mohib spoke on the phone with Sullivan. The new Administration sought to preserve Afghanistan’s social and economic gains, Sullivan said, including “democracy, rights of women, and rights of minorities.”
If the Taliban did not engage in “meaningful and sincere negotiations” in Doha, “they will bear the consequences of their choices.” He added that he did not mean this with “a view to escalate the conflict but to take a hard-nosed look at the situation.”
Sullivan inaugurated an interagency policy review at the National Security Council: briefings and debates that would inform Biden’s decision on Afghanistan.
The U.S. troop presence had fallen to twenty-five hundred. Miller, the Resolute Support commander, felt strongly that Biden should keep these troops in place beyond the deadline, pessimistic about what would happen to the Afghan military if U.S. forces left.
Much of the discussion came down to whether it made sense to keep trying to forge a deal between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic, and, if so, for how long.
“Sir, we’re not for staying forever,” Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Austin, the Defense Secretary, told Biden during the policy review.
But they proposed extending the U.S. troop presence for up to a year, hoping to pressure the Taliban to take power-sharing negotiations more seriously.
It was not clear why a short extension of the American deployment might facilitate talks that had repeatedly failed to advance.
White House officials regarded the Pentagon’s scenario as just another way of recommending that the troops stay indefinitely. If the Taliban attacked nato, Biden might have to commit more troops or order a withdrawal under pressure.
The Pentagon proposals were set aside, and the discussion shifted to what would happen if the U.S. pulled out.
Meanwhile, at the Sharq, in Doha, the talks between Taliban envoys and Kabul’s team offered little evidence that any diplomatic breakthrough was possible.
Ghani’s delegates lived at the resort and had few ties to Qatar. The Taliban envoys, who had homes in Doha, as well as families and businesses, generally turned up at the resort “every two or three days,” and then only at night, Sarabi, the delegate from Kabul, recalled.
“The time management was not good.” In early January, the Taliban delegations did not even appear for talks as scheduled.
By now, many of the Kabul delegates had lost any remaining faith that they had in Khalilzad. Sarabi accused him of “taking the side of the Taliban.”
She said it was “very clear” that Khalilzad “wanted the Taliban to be the head of the government” as part of a transitional, power-sharing arrangement, and that he wanted Ghani to leave office. Khalilzad did believe that Ghani would have to give up power for a transitional government to be formed, but he said that he “never, ever” supported putting a Taliban leader in charge.
To some extent, he blamed the impasse on Ghani’s intransigence. Later, Khalilzad said that his biggest mistake was failing to put even more pressure on Ghani to compromise.
In early 2021, Khalilzad and Blinken came up with a work-around. They would jump-start an “accelerated” peace process that would set aside the negotiations in Doha in order to leap to a final power-sharing deal between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban.
Khalilzad helped write an eight-page draft of a so-called Afghanistan Peace Agreement, which was breathtakingly ambitious: it imagined a new constitution; a transitional government with an expanded parliament, to accommodate many Taliban members; reconstituted courts; a new body, the High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence; and a national ceasefire.
He hoped that the Taliban and the Islamic Republic would agree to attend a peace summit in Turkey.
On March 22nd, Blinken met with nato foreign ministers, who insisted that the U.S. should be doing more to try to forge a political settlement in Afghanistan.
Blinken called Biden and said that he wanted to explore whether a troop withdrawal could be delayed until after the summit in Turkey, even though the Taliban had not yet agreed to participate.
This would show nato allies that the U.S. was listening, Blinken argued, but it would also mean breaking the Doha agreement.
Khalilzad met with the Taliban and argued that, if they wanted Afghanistan to enjoy international aid and recognition, they should accept a delay in the U.S. withdrawal so that a power-sharing agreement could be negotiated in Turkey.
When Taliban negotiators observed that the Americans were talking about breaking the Doha accord, they did not directly threaten to renew attacks against U.S. and nato forces. But they made clear that “bad things would happen,” a State Department official involved said.
On April 5th, Jon Finer, Biden’s deputy national-security adviser, called Mohib and said it was unlikely that the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan before May 1st.
But any extension, he said, would be “for a limited time.”
The White House continued to hope that talks with the Taliban might ease the transition.
“It’s important that the Afghan government speak with one voice,” support the peace process “unambiguously,” and adopt a “constructive and mindful attitude” toward talks with the Taliban, Finer said.
Mohib shared the news with Ghani: the American era in Afghanistan would end soon.
Ghani and Mohib both assumed that Biden would schedule a withdrawal for after the summer fighting season, when winter snows would likely limit Taliban mobility.
Nine days later, when Biden announced his decision, he described the Trump Administration’s deal with the Taliban as “perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself,” but proceeded to order a full withdrawal by September 11th.
Ghani posted a statement on Twitter expressing “respect” for Biden’s decision.
“Afghanistan’s proud security and defense forces are fully capable of defending its people and country,” he wrote.
Within days, the Taliban made clear that they would not participate in Khalilzad’s peace summit in Turkey.
The years-long diplomatic effort by the United States to broker peace between the Taliban and the Islamic Republic had failed.
For years, the Taliban had been operating shadow governments in various rural areas, but they had never conquered and held a sizable Afghan city. nato and, later, the Afghan Air Force had a monopoly on air power.
The Taliban had no warplanes and no effective high-altitude anti-aircraft missiles, although they could bring down helicopters and low-flying planes with smaller arms.
Whenever the Taliban massed for a major assault, or on the few occasions when they temporarily seized a city, they were vulnerable to devastating air strikes.
After 2018, when Miller took command of Resolute Support, he had encouraged Ghani’s forces to redouble the use of élite Special Forces backed by air power.
By 2021, the Afghan Air Force had eight thousand personnel and more than a hundred and eighty aircraft.
After Biden’s announcement, Miller began to pull U.S. soldiers from the country. As he did, the international contractors who maintained Afghanistan’s helicopters and fighter planes departed, too.
“The companies are not going to keep people there if they don’t have blanket protection either from the U.S. or the nato forces,” Miller said.
This past May, Yasin Zia, the chief of Army staff and acting minister of defense, learned that Central Command, the U.S. headquarters in charge of the Afghan war, would attempt to provide aircraft “tele-maintenance” by video, on iPads, employing specialists in Qatar.
“They said the mechanic from our side would sit in front of the Zoom and the person from Qatar would advise him to do this or do that,” Zia recalled.
Central Command also planned to open an aircraft-repair shop in the United Arab Emirates, about a thousand miles from Afghanistan, but Afghan helicopters could not fly that far, and Afghan airplanes had to traverse Pakistani airspace, requiring complicated negotiations with the Pakistani military.
A senior State Department official involved said that by June “you could see there wasn’t going to be anything there” to keep Afghan aircraft flying.
Maintenance aside, the essential problem, according to a senior Defense Department official, was that “we were leaving.”
The entire Afghan military was designed to operate around U.S. systems and expertise, and when that was gone the Afghan forces unravelled.
In recent years, the Afghan military had inherited dozens of bases. According to Saleh, the First Vice-President, the bases were “defendable but not easy to supply.”
They were especially so as the Taliban captured more territory and closed off highways.
That spring, Saleh wrote, in an e-mail, “There were days when I would get up to a thousand messages on my WhatsApp or phone from these besieged [bases] asking for help.”
Many stranded soldiers posted stories of desperation on social media. “The desertion rates increased up to seven hundred per day, due to hunger, thirst, lack of medivac, lack of logistics and air support,” Saleh said.
In early July, Ghani and his advisers returned from their visit to Washington, where they had made a show of their fortitude and optimism.
But, Mohib recalled, “we were quite desperate.” When the U.S. troop withdrawal had started, the Taliban controlled around eighty of Afghanistan’s approximately four hundred administrative districts, according to estimates by the Long War Journal.
By July 10th, the Taliban controlled more than two hundred. They quickly seized border crossings leading to Iran and Pakistan, and with them lucrative customs revenue.
Then they choked off major cities and conquered new districts close to Kabul. “We couldn’t control the flow of it, and we weren’t entirely sure what the Americans could or could not provide,” Mohib said. “And the collapse started very quickly.”
On July 23rd, Biden called Ghani.“I need not tell you the perception around the world, and in parts of Afghanistan, I believe, is that things are not going well in terms of the fight against the Taliban,” he said.
American generals had been trying to persuade Ghani to devise a new military plan that concentrated airpower on the defense of major population centers, such as Kabul.
Biden proposed that Ghani hold a press conference the following week with well-known Afghan politicians, including Abdullah, Dostum, Karzai, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, a leader of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority.
Biden envisaged “all of you standing together” with Bismillah Khan, the minister of defense, “backing up this new strategy” to defend Kabul and major cities.
“I’m not a military guy,” Biden continued, “so I’m not telling you what a plan should precisely look like,” but, if Ghani agreed to this idea, “you’re going to get not only more help” from the U.S. military but foster a change in perception.
“We will continue to provide close air support, if we know what the plan is and what we are doing,” Biden added.
Ghani said that he would hold the press conference, but that his forces needed more American planes to conduct air strikes on the Taliban: “What is crucial is close air support.”
“Look, close air support works only if there is a military strategy on the ground to support,” Biden replied. He said that he would have one of his top generals call Ghani immediately, to synchronize military plans.
Two days later, the Pentagon announced that it had begun to carry out intensified air strikes against the Taliban, which would continue in the “coming weeks.”
Ghani staged an appearance with political leaders and travelled to provinces and military bases to rally the armed forces.
On August 2nd, as he presented his government’s new military strategy to parliament, he lashed out at the Biden Administration.
“The reason for our current situation is that the decision was taken abruptly,” he said. Still, he forecast that his government would have matters “under control within six months.”
Ghani decided to travel to Tehran to attend the inauguration of Ebrahim Raisi, the new Iranian President, on August 5th.
For some years, Ghani had been negotiating a security and economic agreement with Iran. Before he departed, he talked with Blinken.
They spent the first ten or fifteen minutes reviewing the potential consequences for U.S. foreign policy of an agreement between Kabul and Tehran.
Blinken warned Ghani, “If U.S. laws are violated, that would jeopardize our support.” The discussion presumed the Islamic Republic’s prolonged existence.
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When they turned to the war, Ghani launched into a soliloquy about American mistakes, particularly the long pursuit of negotiations with the Taliban.
Ghani’s negotiators in Doha had informed him, he told Blinken, that “all the Taliban want is military victory. With enormous respect, our international colleagues have misread the intentions and character of the Taliban. . . . The current posture of the Taliban is ‘Submit, submit, submit.’ . . . Do your colleagues and your staff have any other sense?”
Blinken said that there still might be a way for Ghani to find a deal “without compromising yourself.” Khalilzad was working on a new proposal: a one-month ceasefire in exchange for both sides releasing three thousand prisoners.
Ghani rejected this outright. If he released thousands more Taliban prisoners, “the country will break. . . . Our security forces will not fight ever again.”
On August 6th, the Taliban captured Zaranj, in Nimruz Province, in the south, the first provincial capital to fall.
The next day, the U.S. Embassy urged all American citizens to leave Afghanistan. Ghani’s office continued to post progress reports on social media about Afghanistan’s modernization drive.
The press releases conveyed more than a whiff of unreality. “Maybe it was a coping mechanism,” Akbar, the chair of the human-rights commission, said, but the daily pretense of normalcy “just seemed like a parallel universe.”
On August 10th, Ghani’s official Facebook page announced new infrastructure projects, including one in the northern city of Kunduz, where the Taliban flag now flew.
When the Taliban conquered Afghanistan during the mid-nineteen-nineties, they sometimes seized Afghan cities with minimal fighting, accepting the surrender of enemies without inflicting immediate reprisals.
Quick, bloodless changes of power were a recurring pattern in the Afghan civil war, reflecting combatants’ sense of kinship, even amid merciless violence.
Surrender, parole, and temporary local truces were established practices, alongside revenge killings and summary executions.
Last summer, Bismillah Khan reported that the Taliban were offering Islamic Republic soldiers money, and a letter of passage, to protect them from harassment after they surrendered and went home.
By August, “money was changing hands at a rapid rate,” a senior British military officer said, with Afghan security forces getting “bought off by the Taliban.”
For weeks, the U.S. and its European allies had tried to avoid evacuating their personnel or Afghans who worked for them, for fear that this would look like a rush to the exits, but by early August the British military had evacuated an Afghan intelligence outfit that intercepted communications by the Taliban.
Provincial capitals now toppled one after another; on August 12th, Ghazni fell.
That evening, Blinken and Lloyd Austin, Biden’s Secretary of Defense, called Ghani to inform him that three thousand U.S. troops would fly in to seize the Kabul airport.
The troops were not being sent to defend Kabul against a Taliban assault; they were meant to protect evacuating American personnel.
The next day, the Taliban took the major cities of Kandahar and Herat. Dostum, under siege, left the country for Uzbekistan, as did Ata Mohammad Noor, another powerful and independent leader in the north.
Khalilzad and his team, still grasping at a deal that might halt a Taliban assault on Kabul, asked Ghani to appoint a delegation led by Abdullah and Karzai that would fly to Doha and work out an orderly transition with Baradar and his colleagues.
The idea was that Ghani would accept whatever this delegation negotiated—including his own departure from office. Ghani said that he was willing to give up power, but only if there were elections to identify his long-term successor.
The Americans dismissed this as wildly unrealistic. On Saturday, August 14th, amid reports that Taliban units were already inside Kabul, Ghani dropped his demand. Now he simply hoped for an orderly transfer of power endorsed by a loya jirga.
He told Blinken that he was ready to accept whatever his envoys and the Biden Administration agreed on with the Taliban.
Blinken asked him to “get the delegation to Doha” as quickly as possible, “to show the Taliban this is a serious process. We need a ceasefire to process this.”
“Please lean as much as you can on a dignified process,” Ghani said. He remained adamant that any transfer of power should be endorsed by the Afghan assembly. “Please convey to the Taliban that this is not a surrender.”
“Dignified is exactly what we want as well,” Blinken said.
Ghani told him that if the Taliban rejected this last effort to bring about an orderly transition, or did not negotiate in good faith, “I will fight to the death.”
He appointed the delegation that Blinken had requested—thirteen people, including a son of Dostum, and Karzai, Abdullah, and Mohib—and announced that they would decide the Islamic Republic’s fate in discussions with the Taliban.
Ghani told Mohib that, with this decision, he felt the Islamic Republic had all but ceased to exist.
In the world’s failed states, Ghani wrote, in a book published in 2008, “vicious networks of criminality, violence and drugs feed on disenfranchised populations and uncontrolled territory.” That problem lies “at the heart of a worldwide systemic crisis.”
Afghanistan was poor but stable and peaceful for much of the twentieth century, until the Soviet invasion of 1979, which ignited forty-two years of continual warfare, much of it caused by outside powers.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. funded and armed Afghan extremists fighting the Soviet occupation of the eighties. Pakistan armed and funded the Taliban’s rise to power during the mid-nineties.
The U.S.-led invasion after 9/11 empowered corrupt warlords around Afghanistan in the name of counterterrorism and, after the Taliban’s fall, failed to prevent Pakistan from fostering the movement’s revival.
By the time Ghani became President, in 2014, the resurgent guerrillas had enjoyed a decade of sanctuary and covert aid from Pakistan’s Army and intelligence service, and they had badly shaken the Islamic Republic’s capacity to govern and defend itself.
In the U.S. and Europe, public opinion had soured on the war, leading to reductions of troops and aid.
For all of Ghani’s efforts to bolster Afghanistan’s young democracy, it was never likely that he would overcome this history, certainly not after 2017, when the Islamic Republic had to cope with the reckless decisions of Donald Trump.
Ghani’s last decision as President, to leave his country, is difficult to fully assess. Last August, a former Afghan Ambassador to Tajikistan accused Ghani of stealing more than a hundred and fifty million dollars while fleeing Afghanistan, although the Ambassador offered no evidence to back up his claim.
Ghani has described these allegations as “completely and categorically false.” In the U.S., the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has opened an inquiry, but the accusations remain a mystery.
It was in late July that Ghani and Mohib first discussed the possibility that they would be forced to flee. One of Ghani’s priorities was to remove his book collection from harm’s way.
His preference was to retreat from the capital to eastern Afghanistan, where he had political and military allies.
Mohib thought that if it became necessary to go abroad Tajikistan and Uzbekistan seemed the most plausible initial destinations, since both could be reached in a single flight aboard one of the Afghan President’s four Mi-17 helicopters.
In August, Mohib asked Qahar Kochai, the director of the Afghan President Protective Service, to develop an emergency plan along these lines.
But as the Taliban arrived at the outskirts of Kabul and the U.S. accelerated its evacuation of American and Afghan allies, Mohib didn’t know whether he and Ghani figured in Washington’s evacuation.
The Secret History of the U.S. Diplomatic Failure in Afghanistan @NewYorker [final]
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On the fourteenth, Mohib learned that one of his colleagues at the Presidential palace was on a list of at-risk Afghans approved by the U.S. Embassy for evacuation.
That afternoon, Mohib spoke by phone with a contact at the State Department. During a discussion about peace talks, Mohib paused to ask, “Is there an evacuation plan for us, for me and Ghani?” The official asked for something in writing.
“I would like to request that I and PG be included in your evacuation plan in case the political settlement doesn’t work,” Mohib texted, referring to President Ghani.
The indefiniteness of the exchange unsettled Mohib. “I thought, My partners are not going to rescue us,” he recalled.
He contacted a senior official in the United Arab Emirates, who assured him that the U.A.E. would provide for Ghani and his top aides.
He said that the kingdom would dispatch an executive jet to Kabul on Monday the sixteenth, and that the plane would stand by at the airport, with pilots ready to fly on short notice.
Mohib belonged to a Signal group chat that included some of the country’s top intelligence and security officials. On the night of the fourteenth, bad news poured across the channel.
Nangarhar had fallen to the Taliban, as had several other provinces.
On Sunday morning, the fifteenth, Mohib walked from his official residence to Ghani’s office, for their daily staff meeting, at nine o’clock.
The channel now reported that members of the Taliban had reached Kabul. The gunmen might be local Taliban who had decided to show themselves, they might be criminals posing as Taliban, or they might be the vanguard of an invasion force.
There were also many reports that Kabul policemen, soldiers, and guards were taking off their uniforms and going home.
In Doha that morning, Khalilzad recalled, he met Baradar at the Ritz-Carlton. During their discussion, Baradar “agreed that they will not enter Kabul” and would withdraw what Baradar described as “some hundreds” of Taliban who had already entered the capital.
Based on Ghani’s concessions the previous day, Khalilzad hoped to arrange a two-week ceasefire and an orderly transfer of power in Kabul, to be sanctified by a “mini loya jirga.”
Khalilzad was in WhatsApp contact with Abdul Salam Rahimi, an aide to Ghani, and informed Rahimi of this plan.
Rahimi told Ghani that the Taliban had pledged not to enter Kabul. Yet this was based on assurances from Khalilzad and the Taliban, and Ghani regarded both as unreliable sources.
The Arg palace and the U.S. Embassy were in Kabul’s so-called Green Zone, protected by blast walls and armed guards.
Resolute Support monitored the streets from a surveillance blimp equipped with high-resolution cameras.
At around nine that morning, Ross Wilson, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Kabul, concluded from a variety of reports that so many police and guards had abandoned their posts that the Green Zone’s web of security on the streets had effectively collapsed.
He consulted with Washington and ordered the immediate evacuation to the Kabul airport of all remaining U.S. personnel at the Embassy compound.
To protect against leaks that might reach the Taliban or the Islamic State, Wilson did not inform Ghani that the Green Zone was no longer safe or of the decision to vacate the Embassy.
Defense Department officials maintained a list of Afghan generals and high-ranking defense officials who would be evacuated from the country if necessary, but the Pentagon regarded Ghani’s possible evacuation as an issue for the State Department.
According to State officials, the matter was never formally considered.
August 15th was a hot morning. At around eleven, Mohib joined the President and a diplomat from the U.A.E. at an outdoor meeting area, on a lawn beside the President’s office.
As they discussed their possible evacuation plan, they could see a swarm of American Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters on the horizon, their motors thumping in the distance like muffled drums.
Then they heard gunshots coming from somewhere outside the palace grounds. Ghani’s bodyguards hustled him inside.
At noon, Mohib joined Ghani in his library. They agreed that Rula, Ghani’s wife, and nonessential staff should leave for the U.A.E. as soon as possible.
Mohib’s U.A.E. contacts offered seats on an Emirates Airlines flight scheduled to depart Kabul at four that afternoon.
Ghani asked Mohib to escort Rula to Dubai, then join the negotiating team in Doha, to finalize talks with Khalilzad and Baradar about the handover of Kabul.
At roughly one o’clock, Mohib received a text message that Khalil Haqqani, a leader of the Taliban faction named for his family, wished to speak with him. He took a call from a Pakistani number. Haqqani’s message, Mohib recalled, was, essentially, “Surrender.”
He said that they could meet after Mohib issued an appropriate statement. When Mohib proposed that they negotiate first, Haqqani repeated himself and hung up.
Mohib called Tom West, a deputy to Khalilzad in Doha, to inform him of the call. West told him not to go to any meeting because it might be a trap.
Mohib returned to Ghani’s residence at around two. He escorted Rula in a motorcade to a helipad behind the Dilkusha palace.
They were to fly to Hamid Karzai International Airport, to make the Emirates flight.
Three of the President’s Mi-17s were now at the Arg; the fourth was at the airport.
He learned that the pilots had fully fuelled the helicopters because they wanted to fly directly to Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, as soon as possible, as other Afghan military pilots seeking refuge had done in recent days.
The pilots did not want to hop over to the airport with Rula, because they had received reports that rogue Afghan soldiers were seizing or grounding helicopters there. Kochai, the head of the Presidential guard, approached Mohib.
“If you leave, you will be endangering the President’s life,” he said.
“Do you want me to stay?” Mohib asked.
“No, I want you to take the President with you.”
Mohib doubted that all of Ghani’s bodyguards would remain loyal if the Taliban entered the palace grounds, and Kochai indicated that he did not have the means to protect the President. Mohib helped Rula onto the President’s helicopter and asked her to wait. With Kochai, he drove back to the residence.
He found Ghani standing inside and took his hand. “Mr. President, it’s time,” Mohib said. “We must go.”
Ghani wanted to go upstairs to collect some belongings, but Mohib worried that every minute they delayed they risked touching off a panic and a revolt by armed guards. Ghani climbed into a car, without so much as his passport.
At the helipad, staff and bodyguards scuffled and shouted over who would fly. The pilots said that each helicopter could carry only six passengers.
Along with Ghani, Rula, and Mohib, nine other officials squeezed aboard, as did members of Ghani’s security detail.
Dozens of other Arg palace staffers—including Rahimi, who was still talking with Khalilzad about a ceasefire, and had no idea where Ghani or Mohib had gone—were left behind.
At about two-thirty, the pilots started the engines. The three Mi-17s lifted slowly above the gardens of the palace, banked north, and flew over Kabul’s rooftops toward the Salang Pass and, beyond that, to the Amu Darya River and Uzbekistan. ♦
As the World watched events unfold in Afghanistan, it certainly felt like the curtain was falling on the once unipolar Power.
Law & Politics
As the World watched events unfold in Afghanistan, it certainly felt like the curtain was falling on the once ‘’unipolar’’ Power.
The Optics spoke its own narrative and until the surreal Biden Press conference, the US was strangely absent and frankly wrong footed.
The newly minted Taliban 2.0 had obviously been coached at great expense but the bottom line is this was one ignominious US Exit.
After two decades of US occupation, the Taliban [ [who] are predominately Deobandi, not Wahhabi @aaolomi] stormed the Country in two weeks flat. There is simply no come-back from that. The Taliban moved at viral and exponential speed.
As for Taiwan, I think too much is made of the US' position and not enough of Japan (esp), my own country, Australia, Singapore etal, who would be most affected by China invading Taiwan. @GrayConnolly
Law & Politics
As for Taiwan, I think too much is made of the US' position and not enough of Japan (esp), my own country, Australia, Singapore etal, who would be most affected by China invading Taiwan. It is unthinkable that Japan would not defend its former colony (and go nuclear afterwards).
29-NOV-2021 :: Regime Change
The Invisible Microbe has metastasized into Omicron and what we know is that COVID-19 far from becoming less virulent has become more virulent.
The transmissibility of #Omicron is not in question, it clearly has a spectacular advantage.
The Open Question is whether it is more virulent. If it is less virulent then #Omicron is breaking the Trend of increasing virulence.
Tail risk of contagious diseases Pasquale Cirillo & Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The use of increasingly sophisticated mathematical and computational models for the spreading and the implications of epidemics should, in principle, provide policy- and decision-makers with a greater situational awareness regarding their potential risk.
Yet most of those models ignore the tail risk of contagious diseases, use point forecasts, and the reliability of their parameters is rarely questioned and incorporated in the projections.
We argue that a natural and empirically correct framework for assessing (and managing) the real risk of pandemics is provided by extreme value theory (EVT), an approach that has historically been developed to treat phenomena in which extremes (maxima or minima) and not averages play the role of the protagonist, being the fundamental source of risk.
By analysing data for pandemic outbreaks spanning over the past 2500 years, we show that the related distribution of fatalities is strongly fat-tailed, suggesting a tail risk that is unfortunately largely ignored in common epidemiological models.
We use a dual distribution method, combined with EVT, to extract information from the data that is not immediately available to inspection.
China in Africa: no more hard cash as debt-hit nations battle Covid-19 disruptions @SCMPNews https://j.mp/3pPE78G
Addressing the Dakar meeting via video link on November 29, Xi also did not announce how much would go into development financing, for which US$10 billion was set aside in 2018.
However, he pledged US$40 billion to support African exports to China and credit lines for African financial institutions, as well as encourage Chinese firms to invest in Africa.
While he did promise US$10 billion in credit lines for African financial institutions, the amount was down by half from 2018.
Paul Nantulya, a research associate at the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies at Washington’s National Defence University, said China’s direct financing commitments, which had remained at a steady US$60 billion for the 2015 and 2018 FOCAC summits, were bound to either decline or disappear altogether.
“China has been signalling strongly that it wants to shift towards a private sector-to-private sector financing model,” Nantulya said.
“China’s policy banks have grown increasingly concerned about borrowers’ ability to repay loans and grown wary about extending finance.”
These lenders not only have an obvious financial interest in recovering their money, but they are also part of the Communist Party political architecture in China, Nantulya pointed out.
“Should non-performing loans and defaults continue to increase, Xi could face political consequences at a time when he is consolidating control amid the global pandemic.”
According to Lina Benabdallah, a specialist in China-Africa relations at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, “there are more or less creative ways of sourcing the finances this time”.
“Long gone is the finance largesse we are used to seeing in FOCAC.”
“The long-standing debt funding spree has simply become economically too risky and politically costly, as several African economies grapple with unsustainable sovereign debt levels,” Zajontz, who is also a lecturer in global political economy at the University of Freiburg, Germany, said.
Black Axe The ultra-violent cult that became a global mafia
A two-year BBC investigation into Black Axe - a Nigerian student fraternity which evolved into a dreaded mafia-group - has unearthed new evidence of infiltration of politics, and a scamming and killing operation spanning the globe.
It's not the blood or the sound of the gunshots that haunt him. It's the begging. The way people beg for mercy when they die. Begging him. Begging God.
"It's so painful," he says, shaking his head with a shudder. "The families of the dead, they will curse you. A curse will be upon your life."
Dr Stone teaches political science at the University of Benin, in south-east Nigeria. But for decades he was a senior member of Black Axe - a Nigerian mafia-style gang tied to human trafficking, internet fraud and murder.
Locally, Black Axe are referred to as a "cult," a nod to their secret initiation rituals and the intense loyalty of their members.
They are also infamous for extreme violence. Images of those who cross their path - dead bodies mutilated or showing signs of torture - regularly surface on Nigerian social media.
Dr Stone admits he took part in atrocities during his years as an "Axeman". At one point during our interview, recalling the most efficient means of killing, he leaned forward, squeezed his fingers into the shape of a gun and pushed them to the forehead of our producer. In Benin City, he was known as "a butcher".
In Africa, Europe, Asia and North America, Axemen are in our midst. You may even have an email from them in your inbox.
A manhunt will befall you," reads one death threat, sent to Tobias online. "The AXE will pierce through your skull… I will lick your blood and chew your eyes."
But internet fraud, not murder, is the primary source of revenue for the gang.
The documents given to the BBC include receipts, bank transfers and thousands of emails showing Black Axe members collaborating on online scams around the world.
Members share "formats" - blueprints on how to conduct scams - with each other. Options include romance scams, inheritance scams, real estate scams and business email scams, in which the perpetrators create email accounts that appear to be those of the victim's lawyers, or accountants, in order to intercept payments.
These scams are not small-scale, conducted by a lone wolf on a laptop. They are collaborative, organised and extremely lucrative operations, sometimes involving dozens of individuals working together across continents.
Among the leaked emails, the BBC uncovered a case of a man in California who was targeted by a network of suspected Axemen in 2010, scamming him from Italy and Nigeria. The victim told us he was defrauded of $3m in total.
"The Bank that I was working with does not seem to exist???" the desperate victim exclaimed in an email to one of the conmen - the moment he realised his money was missing. "Can I make this any clearer??? The Bank in Switzerland seems to be fraudulent."
In 2017 Canadian authorities say they busted a money laundering scheme linked to the gang worth more than $5bn. Nobody knows how many similar Black Axe schemes are out there. The leaked documents show members communicating between Nigeria, the UK, Malaysia, the Gulf States, and a dozen other countries.
As global as Black Axe's criminal empire may be, its roots lie firmly in Nigeria. The group was founded 40 years ago in Benin City, Edo State.
Most Axemen are from this region, and this affiliation may have played a role in the group's international expansion.
According to the UN commissioner for refugees, 70% of Nigerians who migrate abroad are from Edo State.
Black Axe are reported to play a pivotal role trafficking those who travel illegally, moving them between their bases in Benin City, North Africa and Southern Italy.
In their homeland, male university undergraduates - aged between 16 and 23 - are Black Axe's primary recruits. The gang's secretive initiation process, known as "bamming," is notoriously brutal.
"I didn't know I was going to bam that day," writes one Axeman, detailing his experience in a post on a secret forum from 2016.
He says he was led away from campus, thinking he was attending an exclusive party. He writes how he was taken to a forest, where a group of men were waiting for him.
They stripped him and forced him to lie face down in the mud. Then they took turns whipping his skin raw with bamboo, beating him close to unconsciousness.
Someone screamed they would rape his girlfriend, and when he had finished, he would rape her again.
"That was going to be the day I die," he writes.
But the agony eventually stopped. A series of rituals followed, including crawling through the legs of his tormentors - a tradition known as the "devil's passage" - before drinking blood from a cut in his thumb and chewing a kola nut, a caffeinated nut native to West Africa.
To the echoes of songs and chants, he was then embraced by the men who had just tortured him. He had been reborn as what they call an "Aye Axeman."
"We worship Korofo, the unseen God, and he has always guided us," the leader of the group told us, sitting in a small wooden building, surrounded by an entourage of Axemen. He said he was "proud" to be a member of Black Axe, despite saying he was forcibly recruited by a police officer.
Opposition Leader Prepares Bid for Kenyan Presidency @bpolitics @herbling
Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga announced his fifth bid to become president in elections scheduled for next year.
The declaration by Odinga at a rally on Friday sets him up for a likely run against Deputy President William Ruto, who’s said he plans to be a candidate in the August ballot. Odinga, 76, first ran for the top office a quarter century ago.
“I do hereby accept to present myself as a presidential candidate,” Odinga told tens of thousands of supporters in the capital, Nairobi.
“I ask for nothing and will never ask for anything apart from opportunity to serve.”
Whoever wins the race to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta will have to contend with a growing government debt burden that’s been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
The new leader may also have to deal with the aftermath of a potentially divisive election, with previous votes being marred by violence that tainted Kenya’s stature as a stable nation in an unstable region.
Kenya’s political landscape has shifted in the past three years as Kenyatta reconciled with Odinga after a bitterly contested election in 2017 -- a decision both men said was necessary to deliver the nation from the brink of conflict.
However, a detente between the two former rivals fractured the ruling Jubilee Party, with Ruto’s supporters saying it was orchestrated to deny him the opportunity to succeed Kenyatta.
Ruto led Odinga 38% to 23% among likely voters in a November survey by Nairobi-based pollster TIFA Research.
About a quarter of respondents were yet to decide on who they’d vote for, while another 10% were unwilling to identify their preferred candidate.
Odinga and Ruto, 54, have both pledged support for marginalized communities if they become president, using policies that will increase government spending to spur economic growth.
Odinga has proposed a rural development policy and a monthly stipend of 6,000 shillings ($53) for about 2 million of the poorest families, while Ruto has suggested a fund of at least 100 billion shillings to support small businesses.
Odinga presented a 10-point plan that was heavy on social protection measures, including money transfers and universal healthcare.
He said his manifesto will detail steps on fighting corruption and managing public debt.
The impact of the pandemic on Kenyans will make the economy a key election issue, according to Edward Hobey-Hamsher, a senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.
East Africa’s largest economy contracted in 2020, the first time in nearly three decades, as restrictions imposed to curb the Covid-19 spread hit businesses and homes.
“If implemented effectively, the financing of social spending would restore the productivity of Kenya’s borrowing and improve the country’s debt-carrying capacity,” Hobey-Hamsher said.
Ruto and Odinga haven’t articulated plans to reduce the debt burden -- the fiscal deficit is expected to expand to 8.2% of gross domestic product in the year through June, compared with an earlier target of 7.5%.
While Kenya’s debt remains sustainable, there is a high risk of debt distress, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Kenyan administrations have repeatedly fallen short of IMF targets, “and perhaps at the moment an election win is a bigger priority than long-term fiscal sustainability,” Jacques Nel, head of African macroeconomics at Oxford Economics Africa Ltd., said in emailed responses to questions.
A coalition that includes former vice presidents Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi has yet to announce whether it will field a joint presidential candidate or support either Odinga or Ruto.