Today in Central Asian history: the Battle of the Baggage (737)

In the waning years of the Umayyad dynasty, a caliphal army suffered a major defeat in an area that is now part of Afghanistan, to a Turkish people called the Turgesh. The defeat was serious enough to disrupt caliphal control of the region called Transoxiana (literally “across the Oxus River,” which is today known as the Amu Darya) and allowed the Turgesh to advance into the eastern Iranian region of Khurasan. The setback for the caliphate was temporary; the Arabs laid a whupping on the Turgesh later that year that led to their almost total disappearance as a threat. The setback for the Umayyad dynasty, however, was considerably more significant, because the loss of direct control over Khurasan helped set the conditions that allowed the Abbasid revolution to incubate there.

The Turgesh aren’t on the world stage very long, but we can’t very well talk about their victory without at least mentioning who they were. They’re a product of the Turkic Khanate, or Göktürk Khanate if you prefer, that controlled the Central Asian steppes from the mid-6th century through the mid-8th century after a lull in the middle of the 7th century. In the 580s a civil war split the khanate into eastern and western halves, and both then were toppled by the Tang, in 630 and 659, respectively, before the whole Turkic Khanate was revived in 682. The Turgesh are a product of the collapse of the western khanate in 659–they established their own khanate in 699 in a part of modern Kyrgyzstan and by the 710s they were strong enough that their khan, Suluk (d. 738), decided they were the ones who could drive these Umayyad invaders out of the parts of Transoxiana they’d only just conquered.

Beginning around 720 the Turgesh began to attack the Umayyads, and though the caliphate was obviously the larger empire and could in theory bring more forces to bear than the Turgesh, the caliphal armies were operating a long way from home in a place where they weren’t welcome. The local peoples of the region, primarily Sogdians, began revolting to coincide with stepped up Turgesh assaults; the largest of these, led by an Arab named al-Harith b. Surayj (d. 746), also tapped into simmering resentments about the treatment of non-Arabs living in the empire. Things got bad enough that in the mid-730s, the caliph, Hisham b. Abd al-Malik (d. 743) sent a former governor of Khurasan, the experienced Asad b. Abdullah al-Qasri (d. 738) back east to put a lid on it. Asad quickly was able to tamp down Harith’s revolt, then turned his attention to the Turgesh.


This map will hopefully give you some idea where we are; focus on Balkh and the nearby region of Khuttal (Wikimedia | cropped from an original by Cplakidas)

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I’ve tried very hard to care that Congress just overwhelmingly overrode a presidential veto and passed a law (the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act” or JASTA) allowing the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. I really have. I’ve read the stories about how angry the White House is because they fear the law will chill Riyadh’s cooperation on counter-terrorism, and I laughed in spite of myself. I read about how Riyadh is “rethinking” its alliance with the United States, and I laughed and said “huh, oh well,” again in spite of myself. Then I remembered the 28 pages from the Congressional 9/11 report, which showed that if the Saudis weren’t part of the problem (Mohamed Atta didn’t really have a Saudi handler) they also sure as hell weren’t part of the solution, and I thought “what fucking alliance?” still in spite of myself. I read how Congressional leaders are already worried about a law they just passed a couple of days ago, and are blaming the White House for not doing more to stop them from overriding the president’s veto, and that I have to admit stunned me, even coming from this, the absolutely worst Congress in American history:

But it still didn’t make me care.

It’s not that I don’t understand the real fear about this bill, that it will open Americans (and, eventually, everybody else) up to lawsuits all over the world–or, at least, in the many parts of it that Americans have helped to destroy. But I’m even having a hard time caring about that, a la Chris Hayes:

Still, on this latter point, if you really forced me to take a position, I would say we’re probably better off if everybody in the world isn’t constantly suing everybody else in the world. I guess I’m a bit conservative about changing international norms (which this bill may ultimately do), because the potential for unforeseen consequences bothers me. And changing international norms with respect to lawsuits does carry the potential for unforeseen consequences, particularly if the threat of lawsuits forces countries to disengage with one another completely. Engagement, on balance, is good, and less of it is usually bad. Disengagement heightens the potential for misunderstandings and increases the possibility that misunderstandings will snowball into crises. So yeah, Congress probably shouldn’t have passed this law or overridden the veto, and they probably should get to work rewriting it ASAP. But I’d feel more strongly about that if literally anybody involved in this story was in the least bit sympathetic.


What are we still doing there

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, the so-called “Asian Donald Trump”–which I honestly think is a little bit racist because, hey, this guy already got elected president–has been in the news a lot lately, mostly I think intentionally. You might remember a couple of weeks ago when he maybe/probably called Barack Obama a “son of a bitch” or “son of a whore” (I don’t know anything about Tagalog but I guess the phrase he used can be translated either way) and then hilariously tried to take it back to avoid being snubbed by Obama at the ASEAN conference (he got snubbed anyway). We all laughed at the funny cussing man who got his comeuppance for being vulgar, but here’s the thing: there’s actually not much to laugh about when it comes to Rodrigo Duterte, who is a dangerously unhinged guy.


“Hey, I just wanted to double check–you said what about my mother?” “[panicking] uhhh, you have reached the voicemail of Rodrigo Duterte…”

Duterte doesn’t like drugs. Fair enough, just say no or whatever. But Duterte also doesn’t like drug users, and he apparently doesn’t see much use for drug rehab, otherwise he wouldn’t constantly be telling people that they should feel free to go vigilante and just kill any drug users they happen across. In his previous jobs as prosecutor and mayor of Davao City, a UN investigation found that he was “supportive” of extrajudicial killings by something called the Davao Death Squads. He frequently, openly muses about killing people himself, though there’s no evidence he’s actually tried that since the time, by his own admission, he shot a fellow law student and somehow didn’t go to prison over it. You’d hope that being elected president would maybe soften a person up a bit, but it really hasn’t, and just today he offered that he would be “happy” to kill three million drug users in his country, and he cited Hitler as a role model to boot: Continue reading

Full of sound and fury


These guys are considerably less chummy of late

There are two ongoing situations dominating recent events in Syria. One is the month-long rebel advance north of the city of Hama, led by Jaysh al-Fatah (the partnership between Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra Fatah al-Sham that captured Idlib province from Bashar al-Assad last summer), Jund al-Aqsa (a Nusra offshoot), and elements of the Free Syrian Army (the effort to get the FSA to divest itself of ties to extremist groups is going gangbusters, I see). That offensive captured two predominantly Alawite towns today and may be in a position to consolidate its gains despite a heavy response from Assad’s air force. The main impetus behind the offensive has been to force Assad to divert resources from the second situation, the conflict/crisis in Aleppo, and in that sense it’s not clear how effective it’s been despite its territorial gains.

So, yeah, about Aleppo. There’s only so many ways you can say “everything about this is a nightmare” before you’re just repeating yourself to less effect each time, but certainly this is where we’re at:

The UN’s chief humanitarian official said the people of Aleppo are facing a humanitarian catastrophe worse than anything witnessed so far in Syria’s brutal five-year war.

Stephen O’Brien made the remarks to the UN security council on Thursday as Russia rejected calls to halt its bombing campaign on eastern Aleppo, saying it might consider a 48-hour humanitarian “pause” instead.

“Let me be clear: east Aleppo this minute is not at the edge of the precipice,” O’Brien said. “It is well into its terrible descent into the pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any we have witnessed in Syria.

“Syria is bleeding. Its citizens are dying. We all hear their cry for help.”

Yesterday, government air and artillery strikes reportedly hit two hospitals and a bread line in eastern Aleppo, and, look, either the Syrian military is aiming for these sorts of targets or it truly has no idea what it’s firing at, and either of those possibilities is pretty terrible to contemplate. Both Russia and Syria consistently deny that they’re bombing hospitals, but they might get more support for their denials if Syria’s UN ambassador stopped laughing about it when asked:

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MH17 investigation points finger at Russia

A nearly two-year Dutch investigation into the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine has concluded, and please consider sitting down before you proceed, that Russia and its rebel proxies did the deed. This is…not surprising, though it’s nice to finally have some investigative findings backing up the accusation:

“Based on the criminal investigation, we have concluded that flight MH17 was downed by a Buk missile of the series 9M83 that came from the territory of the Russian Federation,” chief Dutch police investigator Wilbert Paulissen told a news conference on Wednesday.

The missile had been taken from Russia to rebel-held Ukraine in the morning of 17 July, when the plane was shot down, and the launcher was taken back to Russia the next day, he said.

The Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has also narrowed the missile launch site down to a specific field near the village of Pervomaiskyi, which was then in rebel hands.

There’s a more detailed discussion of the investigation’s findings here.

It’s fair to ask why this matters–it has been two years, after all, and the situation in Ukraine has changed quite a bit since then. But whatever else has happened since 2014, murder is still a crime, and shooting down a civilian aircraft is murder. Investigators claim to have identified some 100 people who were involved in some way with the shoot down, and those people could very well face criminal proceedings at The Hague, though obviously it’s unlikely Moscow would acquiesce to any of them actually standing trial. But new targeted sanctions against those people are now a possibility. Russia was concerned enough about this report that, earlier this week, it released new “radar data” showing that Ukraine simply must have been responsible. Once the report was issued Moscow went in to a bit of a rage, calling it “biased” and accusing Ukraine of “falsify[ing] evidence.” So clearly the Russians think it matters.


Speaking ill of the dead

'Is the Peace Process Poised for a Resurrection?':Shimon Peres, Vice-Prime Minister of Israel and Chairmanof the Labour Party

Shimon Peres, 1923-2016 (Wikimedia | World Economic Forum)

Shimon Peres, who died on Monday at the age of 93, spent much of the last couple of decades of his life paying lip service to the idea of making peace with the Palestinians, and so it’s much easier for world leaders to eulogize him as a “man of peace” than it was to do so with, say, Peres’s long-time rival Ariel Sharon. Influential pundits can mourn his loss as “the passing of hope” and probably not get a whole lot of push-back. But just because a lot of people with big platforms say a thing, it doesn’t necessarily make that thing true.

Peres has been called Israel’s “last founding father,” since his roots in Israeli politics predate Israel’s founding in 1948. He served in several of the highest posts in the Israeli government–multiple stints as defense minister, foreign minister, and prime minister, and most recently a term as president (he’s the only Israeli leader to serve as both prime minister and president). In one of his stints as foreign minister, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 along side his boss, PM Yitzhak Rabin, and Yasser Arafat, for their work in negotiating the Oslo Accords–that Oslo never led to peace is only one of a few ironies to consider with respect to that award. It’s Oslo where Peres gets a lot of his reputation as a leading pro-peace Israeli voice.

But Peres’s legacy is far cloudier than all these eulogies would suggest, and his commitment to “peace” had a lot more to do with ridding Israel of threats than it did with securing a just and safe future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. He helped negotiate Oslo but was but looked the other way when it came to the growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which he described in the 1970s as “the roots and the eyes of Israel” and which were perhaps the single greatest systemic reason why Oslo never had a chance for success. If it’s true that he experienced a genuine change of heart on settlements, then that change of heart conveniently coincided with his departure from active political life (the Israeli presidency is purely ceremonial). In truth, despite having been in and around the Israeli government for nearly all of Israel’s existence to date, Before he became known for his supposed dovishness, he was responsible for building up the Israeli military and for essentially masterminding the Israeli nuclear weapons program that we’re all still supposed to pretend never existed. And while I can buy that he maybe had a later-life change of heart around issues of war and peace with Israel’s neighbors, that doesn’t explain why, in his second stint as prime minister, he was responsible for the IDF’s brutal 1996 massacre at the Qana refugee camp in southern Lebanon.

Haaretz’s Gideon Levy explains the fundamental contradiction underlying Peres’s commitment to “peace”:

He wanted peace. Who doesn’t? But the truth must be told, even in difficult moments; he never perceived the Palestinians as equal to Jews, and certainly not as having equal rights.

After years in the company of David Ben-Gurion perhaps it was too difficult to formulate a different approach. Human rights and international law didn’t interest him, and Palestinian suffering didn’t move him.

Any “peace” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that doesn’t recognize the rights and basic humanity of both parties is not actually peace and will never be sustainable. That Peres never seemed to recognize this is enough to tarnish his legacy.


Who cares about Gary Johnson’s “Aleppo moments”?

Here I have helpfully compiled the top five reasons why it doesn’t matter that Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson essentially can’t name a single foreign leader–or at least not one who can be justified as “respectable”–if asked. Some of these are a little complex, but hopefully you’ll be able to follow along:

  1. Gary Johnson will never be president
  2. Gary Johnson will never be president
  3. Gary Johnson will never be president
  4. Gary Johnson will never be president
  5. Gary Johnson will never be president

I get it, though. Gary Johnson has the potential to play genuine spoiler this year, though counter-intuitively, for a libertarian candidate, it’s because he seems to be a threat to take more votes away from the Democratic nominee–though, I have to tell you, that narrative is not particularly compelling if you actually dig into the numbers. I have no idea whether Johnson voters are slightly more likely to vote for Trump or Clinton, or to forego voting altogether, if they abandon him for whatever reason, but there’s not very much evidence that they’re really going to make a difference in November.

But “Johnson hurts Clinton more than Trump” does seem to be turning into conventional wisdom, in large part because it’s a narrative that lets the chattering class justify one of its favorite pastimes: blaming young lefties for the ills of the world. So this is the frame under which Johnson’s candidacy is being covered and it’s almost certainly the mindset with which the Clinton campaign is approaching Johnson right now. Gaffes like this–and it is a gaffe, even though Matthews’ question was the dumbest kind of gotcha interviewing–and his “Aleppo” misstep–also a gaffe, also in response to a dumb, gotcha question–are going to be covered seriously. Now that Johnson has given his own ignorance a catchy name–“Aleppo Moment,” because why not compound stupidity with extraordinarily bad taste?–you’re only going to see that coverage grow.

But, at the risk of repeating myself, Gary Johnson will never be president. Who cares if he can name any world leaders or knows where and what “Aleppo” is? Obviously I can’t know this for sure, but I’d imagine you’d be hard pressed to find a single Gary Johnson supporter who thinks he’s got a chance to win in November, and I’m including Johnson himself in that group. They’re not planning to vote for him because they think he’s going to win–they’re planning to vote for him because they don’t like the two major party nominees. Confronting those voters with evidence that Johnson is manifestly unsuited to the job isn’t going to matter, because they already know he’s not going to get the job.

Johnson’s numbers may well shrink as the election approaches–that’s fairly typical for third and fourth party bids, though given the unprecedented unpopularity of the Clinton-Trump choice, who knows? I don’t, however, think his numbers will drop much because people are suddenly worried that he’ll make a bad president.