Uganda Journal: the safari (part two of two)


photo by Justine Tutuska

The second of two parts

The first thing we see on our boatride along the shores of Lake Mburo is a pair of African fish eagles, which look like streamlined bald eagles but with the white extending from the head and neck down to the chest. Our park ranger, Moses, tries to fill us in on the hunting techniques and mate-for-life habits of the eagles, but we ignore him completely as soon as the first hippos begin to bob their heads out of the water. I happen to spot the first one and point, and everyone leans over to see. Shudders snap. I can practical hear Moses think, Well, so much for me….

The hippos tend to surface, exhale a spray of air very much like a whale, blink once or twice as they inhale, and then slide quietly back under water. “They look so hungry, hungry…” I say to no one in particular.


We find hippos in a dozen clusters along the lakeshore, where they live in shallow areas and eat vegetation. If you combined a submarine with a tank and gave it a gaping maw, it would look like a hippo.

We also find a tiny Nile crocodile sunning itself on a tree branch, although he quickly plunks himself into the water when Moses slows the boat. We find another, about three feet long, sunning itself along a muddy bank near a shallow inlet. They grow as long as four meters, Moses tells us—that’s more than twelve feet of crocodile. That’d be a big damn reptile with a lot of teeth.

A little while later, we spook a couple sizeable crocs resting in a stand of papyrus when we round a bend. I can’t get an accurate sense of their length, though, because they both slide into the water, and stare at us with their cold reptile eyes, and disappear with hardly a wake.


photo by Justine Tutuska

A family of baboons comes to the water’s edge as we’re nearly back to the dock. Perhaps twenty of them march by, including a mother with a tiny infant on her back. The troops dominant male finally pushes his way out of the brush closest to the river and scoops his charges up the bank and away like a cop telling onlookers, “Nothing to see here folks. Move along. Nothing to see.” Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing the scowl on the male’s face, but he sure doesn’t look happy to have us bothering his family, even if we are only taking pictures.

Zebra02We have the chance for some souvenir shopping, and Herman shows off the park’s bungalows, which would make for first-class camping. We also see plenty of other animals: waterbuck; topi, a type of antelope with front legs longer than its back legs, built for sustained speed; mongoose; and more bird varieties than I could ever wrap my head around. The place is a birder’s paradise.

We also see a pair of water buffalo, reportedly the most dangerous large animal in Africa because of their truck-like size and notoriously peevish temperaments. Each beast has a set of horns that begin from a central plate, or “boss,” on their forehead, and then like a full head of hair parted straight down the middle, the horns branch out like the curved ends of menacing handlebar moustaches.

Herman tells us the fall census tracked fifteen leopards and a bunch of hyenas in the park, too, as well as a single male lion. “And people camp here in tents?” I ask him.

Once upon a time, elephants used to roam the area, as did rhinos, although Uganda now only has seven and they’re all in captivity. The park does have plans to introduce giraffes later this month as a way to manage the brush.

The national government spends a lot of money on the national parks, Herman tells me later. The biggest problem is a lack of manpower, which would help address the other major problem, which has been poaching. The introduction of sport hunting in Lake Mburo National Park—the only park where it’s allowed—has helped alleviate the problem by providing much-needed income to local communities. A water buffalo might bring in as much as $1,000 U.S.; fifteen percent goes to the park, fifteen percent goes to the sportsmen’s association, which regulates the hunting; and seventy percent goes to the local landowner.

Similarly, when an animal from the park causes property damage for a local landowner, the national government reimburses the community with money that can be used for public works projects like new wells and community centers.

While no leopards show their spots, a monkey gives us a parting shot that could not be more perfect: it sits on the park sign and looks cutes as though posed there for promotional purposes. But Herman has shown me more than beautiful animals—through his own passion today and his work setting up Green Pearl, he has given me a glimpse of Uganda’s ecological future.


photo by Justine Tutuska

Tournament of Rock IV: REO Speedwagon vs. Duran Duran

And the Meat Loaf Express just keeps on rolling. We could look at the string of results and wonder whether he’s been so successful due to the enthusiasm of his fans or the indifference of those of his opponents. In any case, AC/DC is his latest victim and we’ll see Meat Loaf in the finals, where he’ll face off with the winner of this match.

Up first, let’s hear from REO Speedwagon:

And now, the band that. thanks to the insane loyalty of its fans, has established itself as the prohibitive favorite to win it all.

Click to vote.

Here’s the up-to-date bracket.

Dr. Sammy’s Best CDs of 2012, pt 2: the Platinum LPs

Best-of-2012It should come as no surprise that my Platinum list covers a lot of stylistic territory. Or that most listeners out there probably haven’t heard of a number of these acts – most of the best music being made these days plays for far smaller audiences than it deserves. Still, artists are going to express themselves. Let’s give them a listen. Onward.

Best CDs of 2012: The Platinum LPs

Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls
This one is on a lot of year-end lists. Maybe all of them. Their brand of bluesy, muscular retro-Southern Soul is the sort of thing that authenticity-seeking audiences and critics alike are bound to flock to. Comparisons to The Black Keys and Sharon Jones are more than fair – in fact, I’d love to hear Brittany Howard collaborating with Jones – that could be something special. Hell, add Lisa Keukala of The Bellrays to the mix and point me to the pre-order form.

Boys & Girls is an odd one for me, though. I respect it and fully get its value at a critical level, but I didn’t like it as much as I did most of the rest of the discs on this year’s list. But that’s the way it is – sometimes the heart and the head disagree, and when that happens you can’t let taste get in the way of giving due credit.

Bat For Lashes: The Haunted Man
I discovered Natasha Khan late in the year and can’t say I fully have my head around The Haunted Man just yet. But what hooked me in was, I suppose, the intricacy of her songs. There’s a fragility and sparseness to the whole proceeding, the delicate arrangements crafted so as to never obscure the melody or the message. I tend to detest the plinky lo-fi affectations afflicting so much contemporary Indie, but with Khan, the minimalism goes in service of artistry – there’s not much you could change that would improve things.

There are a lot of next-generation Kate Bush devotees recording these days. Not many of them are striking this fine a balance between her avant and pop sides, though.

The Blueflowers: Stealing the Moon
One of the greatest thing about The Blueflowers is the uniqueness of their sound. I’ve wrestled before trying to caption it, and the closest I’ve heard anyone come is “Americana-noir.” Tony Hamera’s arrangements draw on a variety of distinct Americanisms (from “Palisades Park” style organs to surf to jangly Southern gothic guitars lifted straight from mid-1980s Peter Buck, with a little psychedelia sprinkled in for flavor) and, if you’ll indulge a fit of poetic fancy, Kate Hinote’s panoramic vocal style, equal parts intimation and evocation, shimmers like a mountain lake in the blue hour. A bit much? Sorry. Still, a sweeping, minor-key romanticism permeates every corner of Stealing the Moon, rich and layered and textured, as unconditionally committed to heartbreak as it is to love. When the Rust Archives review linked above references Patsy Cine, Roy Orbison and “David Lynch-esque Blue Velvet world of dark shadows, cigarette smoke and strong liquor” they’re really onto something (minus the seething undercurrent of menace native to a Lynch project).

The Blueflowers were on my Platinum list for 2011, too, and at one level it’s easy enough to say that if you liked that one you’ll like this one. However, In Line With The Broken-Hearted is a raw confessional, a tight cycle of songs devoted to closure. I’d love to hear the backstory, but suffice it to say that when relationships go wrong, we hit a point where we have to cleanse ourselves by saying what must be said. Maybe we say it to our ex’s face, maybe it becomes a series of poems in an as-yet unpublished book [ahem] or maybe we write an album about it.

After all the purging, we end Stealing the Moon on a sweet note, albeit one that reaffirms the willingness to internalize the pain around us:

sing me a story how you’ll steal me the moon
while i dance in its beams
a painter and poet with a spell
without it where you would you be?

when the pieces fall down around me
there’s your hands
but it goes by so fast that we barely have time left

seek out your lonely where they rest
give them just a tasting
if i could only be myself
i could keep all their pain for me
for me
for me

The 2011 release was also a little more given to what, once upon a time, we’d have called the “singles” (that was back when radio stations would play tracks by actual artists). Only “Hole of Sorrow” (and perhaps “My Gun”) from StM really stand alongside “Hesitate,” “The Lovely Ones” or “In Line With the Broken-Hearted” as potential jukebox-fare, but Stealing the Moon makes up for it with consistency and perhaps even a little more thematic depth. Tony and Kate recently welcomed their first baby, and if that in some way lent an extra measure of maturity to their work, so be it. We rarely complain about art borne of emotional maturity around here, do we?

ChromaticsKill for Love
At first listen I didn’t think I was going to like Kill for Love (despite how much I dug 2007’s Night Drive). It kicks off with a bang (figuratively, not tonally), offering up a narcotic cover of Neil Young’s classic “Hey Hey My My,” here retitled, appropriately enough, “Into the Black.” If you recall what Cowboy Jumkies did for “Sweet Jane” (and if you’re one of the few people on the planet fortunate enough to hear Space Team Electra cover “Paint It Black”), that’s the territory we’re in here.

After that the disc sort of wafts away into the ether, a pleasantly languid sort of comfortably numb soundtrack that was fine for the background while I was working. After about 15 spins, though, the wheels caught. I can’t honestly say why it took so long. Maybe I was just distracted by other things and not paying sufficient attention, but there’s a lot more going on here than I realized. AMG sums it up neatly: “atmospheric, deeply stylish aural landscapes in pop song silhouettes, and darkly glistening electronic ‘pop’ infused with post-punk’s steely, nihilistic ennui.”

Maybe it’s that ennui thing. Take these lyrics from the title track:

Everybody’s got a secret to hide
Everyone is slipping backwards
I drank the water and I felt alright
I took a pill almost every night
In my mind I was waiting for change
While the world just stayed the same
Everybody’s got a secret to hide
Everyone is slipping backwards

I can’t remember if I like what I said
I can’t remember it went straight to my head
I kept a bottle by the foot of the bed
I put a pillow right on top of my head
But I killed for love

I said at the top of part 1 that I hadn’t really uncovered a theme for the music of 2012, that it seemed to be a “holding pattern” kind of year. Here we have a nice expression of that sentiment (and an intimation of the psychic toll it takes), don’t we? Maybe holding pattern isn’t just a descriptive for the year past, maybe it’s an active thread, characterizing a world waiting for something to happen. Underneath the ennui, though, we still care, desperately and passionately. We anesthetize ourselves because it’s the only way to deal with an endless stream of dead end days.

Apologies if I’m projecting, but it’s something to think about. Preferably while listening to Kill for Love.

The Gaslight Anthem: Handwritten
All young bands start out imitating their heroes. Slowly but surely they assimilate and grow, and the good ones eventually reach a point where they have internalized their influences and emerge with a sound that is distinctly their own. The ones who aren’t that good wind up playing Holiday Inns.

TGA is one of three major bands in recent years to find themselves confronting their significant Springsteen influences, the others being Marah and The Killers. Each dealt with the need to grow in different ways. Marah actively began evolving away from the Boss, although in doing so they failed to find new ground that was as creatively interesting. The Killers embraced the the Born to Run sound, but channeled it though a 1980s lens. The Gaslight Anthem has chosen not to worry about it, but instead to simply evolve organically and un-self-consciously. The result is that while they sound very much like the Springsteen disciples that they are, they’re driven by outstanding songwriting and an occasionally rootsy, occasionally punk edge that keeps you focused on them and not their heroes.

Gregory Heaney at All-Music feels like the band has well and truly arrived:

It feels like the Gaslight Anthem have reached some new evolutionary stage in their growth, bringing together all of their influences into a sound that’s more distinctly theirs. While there are still the strong overtones of Springsteen and Social Distortion present on Handwritten, it feels like the Gaslight Anthem have figured out how to adapt those sonic touchstones into a sound that, though familiar, is their own. Changes aside, what feels more important with a group like the Gaslight Anthem are the things that are the same. Handwritten is still possessed of the same grit and earnestness that have become staple weapons in their musical arsenal.

It’s hard to imagine that there will ever come a time when you don’t hear echoes of that Jersey sound in The Gaslight Anthem’s music, but it’s now becoming evident the ways in which they’re bent on expanding and growing a rich tradition. This is a superbly realized moment for one of America’s premier young rock bands and I’m enjoying every note.

Green Day: ¡UNO! / ¡DOS!¡TRÉ!
These are three distinct releases, but I’m going to treat them as one because it’s useful to highlight the larger context. As the reviewers will explain (and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, linked here, is pretty solid), ¡UNO! is the “arena rock” offering, hewing closely to the brand the band has built in recent years. ¡DOS! is a breakneck garage romp. And ¡TRÉ! is, in his view, sort of a morning-after/what’s left over collection.

Individually we have three CDs that are, well, pretty good Green Day CDs (I’m liking ¡UNO! the best, I think, although it’s possible that’s because of how much I appreciate the sentiment behind “Kill the DJ”). But considered together, this ambitious Punk/Pop trilogy further extends Green Day’s legacy of innovation through a willingness to again explore the boundaries and limits of a well-defined (and restrictive) genre. The first great moment, of course, was American Idiot. After spending several years early in their careers establishing themselves as the go-to for thoughtful three-chord Punk/Pop, Billie Joe found himself utterly fed up with the political corruption of the Bush years. The result was the core reason they became my choice for CD of the Decade.

With American Idiot and its sequel, 21st Century Breakdown, Green Day explored extended song cycles, concept album conceits and multi-section suites that structurally had more in common with Rush and ELP than with the Sex Pistols. Now they’re back to more conventional fare, except that these albums are arrayed as a trilogy. More noodling with form and expectation – interesting.

The bottom line is that no Punk band has ever aimed so high or been so relentlessly focused on making more of the genre. Once upon a time, Punk came bounded by a whole set of strict limitations. Now the possibility is dramatically greater than before. Whether their creative trailblazing sparks a generation of Prog-Punk disciples remains to be seen, but for the moment their own work justifies the experimentation on its own.

Jets Overhead: Boredom and Joy
This sums it up nicely:

Boredom and Joy is an ode to freedom – the gift of having the peace of mind to find joy even in the mundane. It’s about longing for simpler times without the humdrum of our modern distractions,” Jets Overhead’s lead singer Adam Kittredge explains to Rolling Stone. “As a boy I remember being thrilled when I threw a twig in the creek near my house and watched it float down stream. It filled me with joy to wonder where the water would take it.”

When I first encountered JO on their 2006 release Bridges (my CD of the Year, by the way), the vibe was decidedly backward-facing, owing a great deal to 1960s California psychedelia (filtered through the misty, rainy murk of Pacific NW Indie). With each passing release, though, the band more fully inhabits the present. Their evolving sound also becomes more and more radio-friendly over time, albeit in ways that continually foreground the artistic intimacy that has always defined their songwriting and performances.

Boredom & Joy is perhaps their most accessible CD to date, with fresh, clean melodies and subtly layered arrangements serving a song cycle concerned with the growing complexity of relationships over time. Even in moments where the songs evoke an almost disco vibe (“Love Got in the Way” comes off like an homage to The Bee Gees, which would normally be ten points from Slytherin) the message is disarmingly direct and honest. And danceable.

The band also gets major bonus points for their video of “What You Really Want,” which features a second or so of yours truly. (That good looking bald guy at the 1:45 mark? Yeah, that’s me.) The video for the title track, by the way, is the best I saw all year.

The Raveonettes: Observator
The Raveonettes are one of our most keenly interesting bands, continually evolving and pushing the boundaries of Indie noise pop in ways that are always a little surprising. For instance, Observator is as bright as 2011’s outstanding Raven in the Grave was dark and heavy. Didn’t really see this coming, although the result is wonderful.

Listening to the disc is sort of like strolling through the history of Rock & Roll, occasionally pausing to ask “what if this band had listened to lots and lots of Jesus & Mary Chain?” On “Young and Cold,” for instance, the artist being tried on for fit is Buddy Holly. And then on through a gamut that soundchecks everything from Byrds/REM-esque jangle to Echo & the Bunnymen to Lush (admittedly, this one isn’t much of a reach) to – am I imagining an Airplane vibe about “You Hit Me (I’m Down)”? Along the way, Sharin Foo’s vocals never quite let us forget how much The Raveonettes seem to dig the likes of The Ronettes and Shangri-Las.

This nifty little Danish duo has been as consistently outstanding over their last four CDs as anybody in the business, and I’m not going to be the least bit surprised if they break out with a serious CD of the Year candidate in the future. Heck, they’ve been on the short list two years in a row now.

Ryan Shaw: Real Love
Had Ryan Shaw come along 50 years ago we wouldn’t be talking in reverential tones about Otis, Wilson, Marvin and Sam. We’d be talking in reverential tones about Otis, Wilson, Marvin, Sam and Ryan. This. Is. Not. Hyperbole. Ryan Shaw’s voice is just that stunning, and here we find it wrapped powerfully, painfully, lovingly, soulfully around a dynamite collection of original tunes.

The neo-Soul movement presents us with a huge range of approaches: the throwback Soul revivalism of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings; the girl group-infused contemporary ethic of Adele and Duffy; the updated girl-group/combo sunshine of Lucky Soul; the ’70s R&B inflected pop of Alex Clare, Fitz & the Tantrums and Mayer Hawthorne; the rootsy Southern Soul-Pop of Allen Stone. To name a few.

Shaw is very much the purist, although he relies on thoroughly modern production values, and readers looking for a slightly easier label might try this one: he’s a male Adele. In fact, when it comes to pipes, he’s probably a better singer than she is. Real Love is also driven by more consistently excellent tunesmithing, although there’s a certain apples-to-oranges quality about the comparison: Adele’s most recent CD was built around a tightly unified, excruciatingly intimate confessional dealing with a painful breakup, whereas Shaw’s songs are more of a traditional Soul melange favoring themes of love and infidelity.

For the time being Shaw remains comparatively lesser known, which is a damned shame. Maybe he should go on The Voice….

The Shins: Port Of Morrow
Another CD of the Year shortlister. The Shins have always been a band I respected and kind of liked, but none of James Mercer’s previous efforts really grabbed me viscerally. (Mercer has completely changed out all of the personnel here, by the way, so it might be more useful to think of Port of Morrow as a solo project.) Perhaps his songs struck me as a tad distant thanks to a certain disaffected Indie production aesthetic. Hard to say. I keep wanting to use words like “tactical” or “technician” to characterize my reaction to, say, Chutes Too Narrow.

In any case, that was then and this is now, and Port of Morrow is a thoroughly realized and engaging effort. In addition to striking me as generally more textured throughout, Mercer’s songwriting seems to be warming to the idea of a wider audience. I say this very cautiously, because the last thing I was to be seen as doing is accusing him of selling out. It’s just that this effort is gifted with tracks that have what I’d consider to be a much broader appeal than he has enjoyed in the past. “Simple Song” is positively anthemic, for instance, and is one of the most compelling down-tempo ballads I think I have ever heard, centering on an absolutely gorgeous bridge/chorus hook. Wonderful stuff.

Rick Springfield: Songs For The End Of The World
Thanks to that whole Noah Drake thing Rick Springfield has never gotten the respect he deserves. Never will. But he’s an icon for those of us who frequent the Power Pop underground, and this CD is a great illustration of why.

If Songs For The End Of The World had been released by, say, Foo Fighters, everyone would be falling all over themselves to praise its relentlessly engaging melodies, its full-speed-ahead sonic guitar attack and the thematic thoughtfulness of an artist confronting the need to sweep decades of negativity from his life. But it isn’t Dave Grohl, it’s the soap opera pretty boy.

From a public perspective, there have been four distinct phases to Springfield’s life – teen idol, General Hospital soap heartthrob, ’80s pop icon, and whatever happened to Rick Springfield? Unfortunately, while all the attention is focused on phases 2 and 3, that last phase is where so much of the really interesting stuff has transpired, including the struggle with being a creative artist after the crowd has moved on, marital strife, sexual addiction, and a lifelong battle with depression.

“It becomes the thing that you use to make you feel good. It’s not, ‘Oh, I’m feeling turned on tonight.’ It’s a power thing. It’s like, ‘If I have sex with this pretty girl that’s got to mean something — she is OK with having sex with me. So there must be something OK about me’ — because you start so far down in your own self-esteem,” Springfield said.

“That’s my home down there, and I’ve had to fight that depression all of my life. I see how it crushes my wife. I know that we all have our problems, but I’ve never personally spoken to anyone that has had a sh–tier childhood. There were times when I’ve not wanted to be in my own skin, and that’s a very scary feeling.”

Keep this in mind as you watch the video below, by the way.

Artistically, Rick is best remembered for wanting “Jessie’s Girl,” and his first couple of post-GH albums were populated by standard guitar pop fare – love and lust, mainly. But then Living in Oz rolled out, featuring some intensely personal reflections (as well as a pointed critique of the rise of impersonal synth-pop) and that was followed by Tao, where we met a more mature and surprisingly introspective artist thinking more substantively about this whole love thing.

The truth is that unlike so many artists, who have their best moments early and then fade as fame and fortune bleed away their hunger, Rick Springfield’s best work has come later in his career. And I don’t mean “best” in the way it’s used to justify latter-day offerings from a lot of artists, where they’re more intellectually and spiritually inclined but the songs themselves are about as lively as stale dishwater. No, the actual songs here, the hooks and the melodies and harmonies, are as good or better than anything he has ever produced.

A number of critics are calling SftEotW one of his best in years, which is technically true. However, I’d also point you to Shock/Denial/Anger/Acceptance (2004) and 2008’s Venus in Overdrive as evidence that Springfield has remained vital. IThe last eight years have given us three of his best albums ever and there’s no reason to look forward to his next release with anything less than high expectations.

Part 1: The Gold LPs
Part 3: CDs of the Year

Uganda Journal: the safari (part one of two)

ImpalaThe colonial King of Ankole, Omugabe, loved his impala. The capital of Uganda, Kampala, had been named for the graceful antelopes—but the growing population in the city began to squeeze the impala out of their habitat, and they were being hunted relentlessly. The king knew he had to protect the impala he so dearly loved. So, he gathered them together and moved them to the west, to an area now known as the Lake Mburo National Park, and there they still dwell today—the only place in Uganda where people can see them.

That’s the folk story as Herman tells it, anyway. The impala at Lake Mburo are plentiful, grazing in small herds of a dozen or so. They all have black stripes on the back creases of their hind legs and tail that spells out “M,” and the males have lyre-shaped horns that twist like thin tornados as they grow. They have eyes easy to get lost in; as near to the impalas as Herman is able to get us, we have the opportunity for a long, close look.

Herman has brought us to the park for a daylong safari to show off not only some of the most splendid animals on the continent but also to show off his skills as a guide. He’s starting up a new eco-tourism company, Green Pearl Tours—Uganda is the Pearl of Africa, and “green” denotes the eco-angle—and one of the reasons I’m in Uganda is to work with my colleague, Pauline, to provide business planning and marketing help to Herman for his start-up.

“We need to conserve the environment for future generations,” Herman says. “The country is very green. It shows there is life.”

That’s certainly true here at Lake Mburo. Life abounds. Outside the park, so much of the countryside is used for farming and cattle herding; those agricultural uses take up former animal habitat, and those cattle compete directly with zebras for grazing range. Here, the zebras roam as freely as the impala. “It’s the only place in Uganda you can see these animals, impala and zebra,” Herman says. It’s one of the things he likes most about the park—that and its good climate and its relative proximity to Kampala, some three and half hours away.

For those reasons, Herman chose to do his internship here while studying in a travel and tourism program while at university. The park, established in 1983, is one of ten in the country, most of which are clustered in the western part of Uganda.

Monkey02When we show up, the workers at the Sanga Gatehouse welcome Herman like an old friend. A maintenance crew, installing solar panels to provide power for the facility, has taken their lunch break and are feeding scraps of sandwiches to the vervet monkeys in the trees that line the path to the outhouse. The monkeys, gray-furred and black-faced, typically travel in family groups of twenty or so.

We have an appointment for a boat ride on the lake, but as we head in that direction, Herman patiently stops now and then so we can gawk at warthogs and bushbuck and crested cranes. You’d think a vanload of mazungku had never seen animals before.

“Let me tell you the story of the lake,” Herman tells us at one point. Two brothers, Kigarama and Mburo, once lived in the valley. Kigarama dreamed that the valley would flood and so urged his brother to move with him into the hills. Mburo ignored him. When the flood came, Mburo drowned. And so the lake is named for him and the hills are named for Kigarama.

WarthogNear the boat dock, a half a dozen warthogs graze on bended knees. “When they eat, it looks like they are crying,” Herman tells us. “There’s a hormone at works that causes their eyes water.” The warthogs have become so acclimated to humans that they pay us no heed. As we wait for the boat, the largest boar grazes within six feet of me before deciding to act spooked. He “whufs” and takes an angry jump in my direction as a warning. “Woa, big fella!” I tell him as I back off, looking at tusks that could easily disembowel me. “You’re the one who came into my space.” I don’t mind being the one who retreats, though.

Herman has cooked lunch for us: homemade samosa, which are like perogies filled with vegetables, and chipati, a kind of fried flatbread. He’s also made fresh passionfruit juice from a special recipe. When we’re done, he sends us out on the boat.

To be continued….


A roundtable: Is the Taliban losing?

A panel of experts looks at the U.S. and NATO end game in Afghanistan.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus Blog Focal Points.

Recent coverage of Afghanistan by Newsweek-slash-the Daily Beast has been illuminating. On December 30 Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau wrote:

A shroud of anxiety hangs over the coming year in Afghanistan. It’s not only the country’s war-weary civilians who are beset with trepidation and uncertainty—even the Taliban are uncharacteristically worried. … To be sure, the Afghan insurgents unabashedly welcome the impending U.S. troop drawdown. Maybe now they can start to regroup and regain some of the momentum they’ve lost over the past three years. At the same time, however, they’re acutely aware that their ranks have been decimated, while the Americans have worked overtime to transform the Afghan National Army into a credible fighting force. The Taliban’s propaganda department keeps claiming that the ANA is a laughably hollow threat, unable to fill the vacuum left by the departing Western troops. But privately, the guerrillas in the field aren’t sure which side is stronger now.

Also …

… powerful former warlords are hastening to rebuild and rearm the private armies they commanded during the 1990s, preparing to fight the Taliban—and quite likely each other—once again.

Before that, on December 12, Yousafzai had asked Will the Taliban Destroy Itself?

A serious power struggle has broken out among the Afghan Taliban’s top leaders. … the two top-ranking members of the Afghan insurgency’s ruling council, the Quetta Shura, are battling each other for control. … Some insurgents blame [top-ranking members] Mansoor as well as Zakir for the Taliban’s setbacks. Both men have failed to gain territory in the southern Afghan provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. On the contrary, they have lost control of former Taliban strongholds. “… they’ve started pointing fingers at each other,” says [a] former cabinet minister. … To make the situation worse, he says, none of the other current leaders have any outstanding abilities as military commanders or as leaders.

A former Culture Ministry official told Yousafzai:  “Pakistan is sharpening its knife to remove the Taliban like a cancer from its body.”

As one who doesn’t follow Afghanistan as closely as he should, the idea that, once the United States and NATO leave it, Afghanistan will revert to Taliban rule was received wisdom. For added perspective on whether or not that prognosis has been upended, I enlisted the aid of a few colleagues.

The Roundtable 

Robert Naiman, Policy Director of Just Foreign Policy:

U.S. officials have been cited (not quoted) in the press as saying that when the U.S. leaves, it is de facto ceding control of Taliban-dominated areas to the Taliban. I don’t see how you can credibly call that “losing” for the Taliban. Of course, you can move the goalposts, and say that the Taliban lose if they don’t take Kabul. That the Taliban can be prevented from taking over the whole country seems like a very plausible goal; after all, the Taliban didn’t control the whole country before the U.S. invasion.

Mark Safranski, historian and proprietor of ZenPundit:

The Taliban controlled 95% of Afghanistan before the US invasion.

That was a different Taliban though than what exists today.

The Taliban has several strategic problems, if their goal is ruling Afghanistan as an independent government:

1. They are deeply dependent on the ISI for support, training, intel, safe houses, supplies, etc. Far more so than in 2001. They have not been able to move in large-formation units in open combat as they did against the Northern Alliance in years and most commanders with such experience are long dead. Shaking free of Pakistani Operational control will be very difficult.

2. They remain a radical Pushtun movement.  … They are also unpopular and feared which will come to the fore when America withdraws.

3. Without very generous foreign aid, the economy of Afghanistan is going to rapidly implode by orders of magnitude. Resulting in widespread destitution and likely, unrest and militarization of the population as groups scramble to grab what dwindling resources they can from whomever has or will offer any. Only some kind of negotiated settlement will keep the international aid flowing on which the economy of Afghanistan depends.  A Taliban victory by force of arms will end that aid, or most of it.

Steve Hynd, editor of the Agonist:

The unstated question is whether preventing the Taliban winning is the same as a victory worth the name. We’re talking about a reset back to the immediate post-Soviet civil war — I wouldn’t call that a win for anyone.


I agree that the situation has changed since before the US invasion. My point was simply that to the extent that the goal is to keep the Taliban from controlling all of Afghanistan, that’s a very realistic and modest goal, because it was true before even the US invaded. There are a whole bunch of folks who don’t want the Taliban to control all of Afghanistan who have the power and willingness to do something about it and have demonstrated that power and willingness in the past: armed Tajiks, India,  Russia,  Iran, for example. If in addition to everything they had before, they now have US airpower, and if the US accomplished anything in the last 10 years, it stands to reason that the Taliban are going to have a hard time taking back the 95% of Afghanistan they had before.

So, to the extent that some people in the Taliban think that they can restore the pre-US invasion status quo, they are likely to be disappointed. People can call that “losing” if they want. To the extent that their goal is to drive the US out, they can claim victory to the extent that the US leaves. Studies of the insurgency have indicated that fighting the Americans/the foreigners has been a prime motivation for many insurgents. To the extent that that is true, it stands to reason that if the US withdraws, some people are going to say, ok, I accomplished my goal, I defeated the Americans, now there’s no reason for me to die fighting fellow Afghans. In that sense, a US withdrawal will weaken the insurgency, but I don’t think this is the kind of “victory” that the Pentagon originally had in mind.

People in Afghanistan are talking about what happens when the US leaves. That’s good. It causes fear, and that’s not good, but it also makes people talk more realistically about the future. A similar dynamic happened in Iraq when people started to believe that the US was really leaving: they started to focus on other problems. The Taliban will likely come to accept that they can’t control all of Afghanistan; people in Afghanistan who don’t like the Taliban will likely come to accept that the Taliban, in some form, are a permanent feature of the Afghanistan landscape, whether they like it or not. Hopefully, people on both sides who want to live in a unified country in some sense will at some point decide that they prefer accommodation to continued war. It’s beyond of the power of the West to decide when that point will be, but it’s more likely to occur the more the West withdraws its ground troops.


I believe Yousafzai is dead wrong about Pak intentions re: the Taliban. What they’ve been doing is spreading money around with the Pak Taliban to get them to stop attacking Pak assets and ditto for trying to bring the Afghan Taliban back under their full control as a proxy force. Anyone who thinks the Pak military and ISI are going to excise the Taliban like a cancer is either a subject of Kayani’s Jedi mind tricks or smoking Afghan hashish. They’re too valuable a potential proxy — mostly to deny Indian influence, to act as a training ground for other proxy groups and to enable/allow Pakistani strategic maneuvering space in Afghanistan in the event of an Indo/Pak war — and that calculus has not been significantly changed by a decade of US involvement.


I’m not privy to the internals, but common sense broadly supports Steve’s view. If you believe that the ISI and Pakistani military have been pursuing this proxy policy to the extent that they could get away with it for the last 10 years, why would one expect them to cut off the Taliban now? It doesn’t make any sense. Particularly, given that the US is now “leaving,” and that the US recently has made noises in the direction of accommodating Pakistani concerns and trying to bring Pakistan onside in its “reconciliation” plans. If I’m Pakistan, I’m thinking: my policy has been vindicated. Now is not the time to cut; now is the time to play through. To cash in chips Pakistan needs to keep the Taliban as close as they can, not cut them loose. Pakistan’s main value to the US in all this now is not helping the US kill Taliban leaders but helping push Taliban leaders towards a deal.

We’ll leave the final word to Naiman:

As for unstated questions, my favorite is: how is the deal that the US can get with the Taliban now better than the deal it could have gotten from the Taliban in 2006? Who considers that difference justified by the additional bloodshed of the last six years?