Partners in Crime

Asked last week whose idea it was for the US to invade Iraq, longtime Bush adviser Karl Rove pondered for a moment and then said, "I think it was Osama bin Laden's." At last, the truth revealed.

After some positive initial signs from the US' surge strategy in Iraq – a drop in deaths and violent incidents as well as several Baghdad neighborhoods returning to life in March – has come the deluge. Last Wednesday a series of car bombs across the Iraqi capital killed nearly 200, the deadliest day of violence in almost a year. The next day the UN announced that 4 million Iraqis had been displaced by the fighting; two million have left the chaos-ridden country and another two million relocated to safer provinces. A week prior radicals struck at the heart of the foreign presence when a suicide bomber exploded his payload in the cafeteria of the Iraqi Parliament inside the International Zone (formerly the Green Zone), killing two Iraqi parliamentarians. That same day insurgents blew up the much-loved Sufiyaa Bridge, sending dozens of cars as well as a revered monument and another chunk of vital infrastructure into the Tigris. To top it off, Shiite leader Moktada Al-Sadr broke a weeks-long silence only to rouse thousands of anti-American protesters and pull his six followers from the governing coalition, essentially shattering any chance of a legitimate power-sharing deal anytime soon. Taken together, the developments drove US Senator (D-Nevada) Harry Reid to pronounce the Iraq War "lost."

Four years after President Bush declared victory defeat in Iraq seems more inevitable by the day. The true mission was establishing and nurturing a stable democracy as a bulwark against the proliferation of Islamic extremism in the region. Yet this democracy is wafer thin and the war in Iraq has resulted in more extremism, terrorism, and anti-Americanism around the globe, according to a recent study by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruikshank and major surveys by Pew Research and Transatlantic Trends.

Indeed, an objective observer might wonder if it is not Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condelleeza Rice that have had the President's ear these last few years, but Osama bin Laden. Nearly every major foreign policy decision since 9/11 has played right into the hands of Al Qaeda and its fundamentalist ilk, beginning shortly the attacks on New York and Washington with inflammatory pronouncements about religion. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq followed, the former widely accepted but since bungled, the latter against UN wishes and the international community. Secret prisons, permanent detainees, torture, failure to capture or find the Al Qaeda leader, stunning plans to invade Iran mysteriously finding their way into the press...the list is endless, and almost always with Islam in the crosshairs. The Bush administration's five plus years of sustained bumbling and stumbling likely represent the most damaging foreign policy and the most finely calibrated bad PR campaign in the history of modern politics. Just whose side is this guy on? Rove's recent claim prods us to take a closer look at one distinct possibility:

The evening of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Bush is on the horn to a mysterious friend in the Hindu Kush.

W: Hey 'Sama, what gives? You didn't tell me you were gonna knock those towers down!

OBL: Yes, it was a great success. Now you must whip up American anger and come after us in Afghanistan.

W: How do I do that?

ObL: Start with a forceful comment, something to convince people that America needs to take action, and that you mean business. I know: refer to the Crusades.

W: Ooooh, yeah. I'll talk about eradicating the evildoers. Then I'll call in the cavalry and smoke out those terr'ists.

ObL: Right.


February 2003, as the US' Iraq war plans become reality.

W: The entire world is against me!

ObL: Just as we planned.

W: Oh, yeah.

ObL: Now, don't mind the UN, or those surrender monkey Frenchman and their peace-loving brethren. Just start the bombing and move towards Baghdad, wreaking shock and awe as you go. And dump those post-Saddam reconstruction plans that the State Department recently sent you.

W: Which plans?

ObL: Precisely.


April 2004, Osama commends his prize pupil.

ObL: George, job well done with Abu Ghraib -- the mental abuse, the hoods, the electrodes and wiring, the sly release of the photos. And I have to say, the leash was an inspired touch.

W: Hey, you really think so, Sam?

ObL: My name is Osama...

W: It just came to me while walking my dog the other day. Barney doesn't much like that leash, so I figured either would Iraqis.

ObL: Good thinking.


November 2006. At his lowest moment, Bush turns to a trusty pal.

W: Sam, we lost the election. Those weak-kneed tree-huggers won.

ObL: Yes, I noticed.

W: You get Fox News in the cave?

ObL: No, I…

W: Oh but dadgum, nevermind. Our good times together may be coming to an end, my old friend.

ObL: That's why I've come up with another plan.

W: You're always cooking up something, you sneaky caveman. What is it?

ObL: That Iraq Study Group report will be released soon. Toss it out.

W: Done. I don't trust that Jim Baker anyway. Shifty-eyed.

ObL: Then announce that you'll be making a decision on Iraq in January – let people enjoy their holidays.

W: The holidays! I almost forgot. Y'know, I love Christmas, Sammy.

ObL: It's Osama.

W: I get dressed up as Santa and nibble on some spice cookies and Laura…

ObL: Stay with me, George.

W: Hmm?

ObL: In January you announce a re-commitment to the war in Iraq: a troop surge to secure Baghdad. It'll appear as if you're redoubling your efforts at restoring stability and security.

W: But isn't that what people want me to do?

ObL: Here's the twist: you won't commit enough troops to make any difference. Just 20-25,000, or so.

W: Well I'll be. Sounds like another one of your winners, Sammy. But...

ObL: What is it?

W: The people aren't going to like me after this here war goes belly-up. What about that?

ObL: Sacrifices have to be made, George. Think of the 72 virgins.

W: That's a lot.

ObL: Take as many as you like.

W: Can do.


It was mid-2002 and the US had just lost another opportunity at capturing the elusive Al Qaeda leader when the US President rang up his wily mentor. The following chat ensued, versions of which have been repeated several times in the intervening five years.

W: You're so slippery! My boys had you pinned and then suddenly – poof! – they don't. How do you do it?

ObL: I'm not in Tora Bora, George. I'm in Bora Bora.

W: Whoa, that's right. Brain freeze! I was there once myself, years ago. The music had me shaking my groove thing all night, although the illicit substances may have helped. But I have a serious question for you: do you like mo-ji-tos, Sammy?

ObL: George. Stay focused.

W: Huh?

ObL: Why did you call?

W: Shoot the breeze.

ObL: Well, it's good you did. Sometime this week you'll announce that I've slipped through your fingers. Again. And that I'm still at large. And maybe ask your VP to toss in something about Islamic extremism being an existential threat to the American way of life. A little hyperbole never hurt.

W: You know what, Sammy? This terrorizing is fun.

ObL: Tell me about it.

In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion

Winter in Kashmir -- an extended, revised version of an earlier post.

When last spring I began to consider moving to and living in Kashmir for an entire year I often heard tell of bitter cold nights that lasted a lifetime, of entire villages buried in snow, of roads closed and power out for weeks on end – of the confounding trials of a frigid season in an under-developed, Himalayan region without indoor heating.

"You're staying there during the winter?" asked Rafiq Kathwari, a Kashmiri journalist cum photo-documentarian who now spends much of his time in New York. "You will die."

But as September waned the days were still warm, and then October brought little change: the sun still shone nearly every day and even if the nights had grown chilly the daily rising of the mercury became as reliable as that of the sun.

Then in the early days of November the sun took regular siestas and that long, roomy overcoat-poncho, the Kashmiri pheran, quickly became ubiquitous. By the time I'd arrive home from work after the ten minute bike ride in the evenings my hands were nearly numb. And one evening I saw a man maneuvering something unseen under his pheran. When I walked past closely I felt its warmth: a kangri! The mythical earthenware pot that Kashmiris hold underneath their outer coverings during the winter months, it holds perennially burning coals and is generally a substitute for what the developed world all but ignores: heating. The slang term is winter wife a phrase that sounds much more pregnant in Kashmiri. But feeling generally warm enough at home, I shrugged off these developments and girded myself for what lie ahead.

A few days later just before dinner – as a wet, chilly day turned misty evening then bone-chilling night and I put a heavy wool cardigan on over my zipper hoodie, which topped another sweater and t-shirt – winter arrived. And as I finished my meal and shut the doors to keep out the chill, I saw it. Right there in front of my face as I opened a book; hovering and vaguely opaque. It looked like smoke but I wasn't smoking. And then it hit me: it was my breath.

And so I understood. In Kashmir the winter is not the one with which we Westerners are familiar. Yes, in New York temperatures drop below freezing, great snowstorms interrupt normal life, and ice mocks us on the roads; we have to bundle up against the cold, and plagues of flu can temporarily lay low entire towns. But no matter how cold, no matter how hard the wind blows or the snow falls, like an ill-mannered neighbor winter can be brushed away by shutting the door and pulling closed the window. The furnace clicks on and our home or office or wherever we happen to be – and we are mostly indoors – becomes a womb of one's own. We forget the world outside, the time of year, the cold, and go about our lives. But in Kashmir winter is a season just like any other, and when it comes it's everywhere, in our kitchens and bathrooms, our parlors and our bedrooms, and until it recedes we must pile on the layers, grin and bear it.

For the last four months plus I had done just that. But the infamous blizzards never came. The frigid cold mostly stayed away. And then in early March – right about the time my patience had worn thin – the season started to roar: a sanity-sapping fortnight of snow and rain, wind, chill and incapacitation.

First, three days of fat flakes buried Srinagar under more than a foot of snow. The Srinagar-Jammu National Highway , Kashmir's unreliable link to the outside world, was closed to traffic. For several days the Valley was without eggs, chicken, mutton, milk and most vegetables. Schools were closed for a week. All flights in and out were cancelled. The power went out for three days and for the next week flicked on only intermittently. The snowstorm would've been the last straw if it hadn't been so beautiful and so much stinking fun.

And then just when Srinagar had dug itself out and the snow had mostly melted, we were whalloped with three days of nonstop rain. The roads of my Rajbagh neighborhood flooded, along with many others. Schools closed again, as did the National Highway. Meals consisted of breadstuffs and rice and pre-made packaged curries. Mobile networks and Internet connections were woefully inconsistent; cross-town friends might just as well be in Bangalore. And without power, again, I couldn't work.

Now, I'm not saying it was hell – people are suffering through vastly worse days, weeks, even lives, across the globe. But after the long cold winter it was enough to drive a man, at least this man, half batty. I was short-fused and fussy for most of March. I hated Kashmir, the government, my computer, the Internet, my phone, my colleagues, even my market vendor. The longer the harsh weather lingered, the more I growled.

And then, without warning, April rose up like a dream. I looked out the window and praised Allah, Buddha, and Jesus – ten days of on and off precipitation and the 100-odd hellish days that preceded it had apparently come to an end, at long last. Today the sun is shining, and children are playing cricket in muddy open squares. Women are out chatting and shopping in twos and threes. Men stand laughing at tea stalls and snack shops. The mynahs are singing. Kites and pigeons are getting amorous on rooftops. Grass is greening, buds are sprouting; spring is swing in Kashmir.

And I'm still here. Slightly shaken, perhaps, a bit stirred, but alive and well. Take that, Rafiq.