January 01, 2002



Good news seen over at Penny. Ted Rall (op. cit.) is writing a book about his Afghan experiences!

I do feel the mentally disadvantaged deserve a place in the remainder bins along with the rest of us, so I fully support this, of course. But I do have to object to his complete misquotation of a real Afghan expert in that same column, linked above:

According to Ahmed Rashid's seminal "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," the United States provided both direct and indirect financial support to the Taliban regime through 1998, when Osama bin Laden's operatives bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Even after that faux pas, we secretly funneled cash and arms to Afghanistan's extremist rulers via Pakistan.

Rashid's book is brilliant, and his commentary on TV since Sept. 11 has also been incisive (at least what I've seen of it). It is to Rashid's stellar reporting we owe much of our current understanding of such important events in recent Afghan such as the Unocal negotiations, the tank-crushings of Gen. Dostum, and many more tidbits key to understanding the country. Read the book when you can. But in the meantime, understand that the book says absolutely nothing that could legitimately be covered by Rall's lying "paraphrase".

In fact, Rashid paints the American-Taliban relationship from 1994 to the present (as opposed to the U.S.-Mujahideen relationship during the Afghan War of Independence that preceded it) as one of neglect and missed opportunities by the Americans to influence a country away from evil, carelessly leaving the country's fate instead to the Machivellian machinations of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Compare his actual quote, below, to Rall's paraphrase, above (p. 180):

[The U.S.] was not willing to rein in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia... Although there was no CIA budget for providing arms and ammunition to the Taliban, the USA did support the Taliban [until late 1997] through its traditional allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, accepting their provision of arms and funding... it was perhaps not so much a covert policy as no policy.

Rashid says nothing at all about American "financial support... through 1998" or "secretly funnelling" cash and arms after 1998. Rall made all that up.

A couple other undeniable historical facts: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright first condemned the Taliban regime as "despicable" and illegitimate in November, 1997... over eight months before the African embassy bombings. And the Americans (along with most of the world) never recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul in September, 1996. For the six months before that, while Pakistan and Saudi Arabia funnelled arms to the Taliban (and Iran, India, Russia, and several former Russian republics did the same for the Northern Alliance), America's only involvement had been trying (half-heartedly) to organize support for a complete arms embargo on the country as the best way to stop the Afghan civil war.

If Ted really had read the "seminal" Rashid who he name-dropped this week, or any other history of Afghanistan, for that matter, he'd know all that. Too bad he didn't. Go back to cartoons, Ted. As so often these last few months, you've shown yourself a liar walking in the footsteps of real writers.

EDIT: Also check out LGF on this. Charles found a link to another good Rashid piece online.

Posted by BruceR at 11:09 PM



Seen it twice now (the second time in an Imax!) and I've not grown tired of it yet. Beautiful movie. I've also reread the book during my forced absence from computing (see below) and read a lot of reviews, by diehards, big fans, and the like. I've made a list of all my quibbles, and frankly there's only one that matters. Every other decision that Peter Jackson made, I'm standing by. Some of those decisions, I believe, should actually have been made by Tolkien, too. Blasphemy? Hardly... if you've read son and heir Christopher Tolkien's fascinating desconstructions of his father's early drafts, you can see that he struggled with how many of his scenes would end, as well... many far worse than what he ended up with. Now that I look at it, Tolkien's explanation for how the fellowship breaks up at the end of the first book -- two hobbits take off in a boat, leaving the others confused and nonplussed -- doesn't actually make a lot of sense. Left alone, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli then go on in the books to what in any world would be an incredibly heroic feat... the tracking and pursuit of the Orc warparty at a dead run over the next four days, crossing 160 miles of trackless hills on foot without sleep or rest... and yet they couldn't have caught Frodo and Sam paddling off in a boat? No, the movie's telling, with Aragorn and the others complicit in Frodo's choice, is a far better tale to tell. Sorry, J.R.R.

I'm going to reserve judgment, too, on some things I was disappointed the movie didn't make more of... particularly the Legolas-Gimli rivalry, for instance, or the Lothlorien scenes, as there's still time to bring those up, in flashback or what have you, in the second and third movies. In the end, it was already over 3 hours, and a tight story at that. There's more time for exposition in the later books, anyway. But there is one problem that I don't see as redeemable, and which is slightly more than a quibble. That is the character of Saruman.

By making the wizard Saruman an unquestioning servant of Sauron, I do believe Jackson is either oversimplifying the story for greater effect with the unread audience (the one time he has ever done that), or dodging a political bullet. In the books, Saruman is a complex figure, who does all the cruelty that Jackson describes, but with a different motive... out of hopelessness at the seemingly invincible enemy and no small amount of greed, but not utter evil. He doesn't want the ring to give to Sauron, he wants the ring for himself to defeat Sauron and take his place... a point which Jackson's film does not dwell over. "And why not, Gandalf?" he whispers:

"Why not? The Ruling Ring? If we could command that, then the Power would pass to us."

Saruman, Tolkien writes, "was mustering a great force on his own account, in rivalry of Sauron and not in his service yet." Elsewhere, Saruman considers his Plan B, if Sauron finds the ring before he does -- appeasement:

As the Power grows, its proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order... there need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only our means.

Not unlike Stalin in 1939, Saruman hovers for the greater part of the Ring trilogy on the fence, declaring for either side as little as he can while keeping all options open... while the sides of both Good and Evil see no other option but total victory. The dichotomy that Gandalf stands for, amounting in other words to "you're either for the terrorists, or against the terrorists," seems simplistic to Saruman: he's always looking for the Third Option. If this were the real earth instead of Middle-Earth, Tolkien's original Saruman might even be looking for a negotiated end, with U.N. peacekeepers on the borders of Mordor.

In my view, and especially considering the current political situation in the world, Jackson could have improved his work by making Christopher Lee's Saruman as complex as the book version of the character is, instead of just the particularly powerful henchman of Sauron. The movie does not take the same stance on appeasement that Tolkien (something of a Churchillite on the subject) clearly had. Tolkien would likely have been on the Bush-Blair side in the version of this debate we saw in 2001, but it's a debate Jackson's movie version (Saruman-like!) takes no stand on. Instead, Jackson seems to be setting up a much simpler one-two-three "boss" character countdown, with Saruman's chosen orc servant dying at the end of this current movie, Saruman at the end of the second, and Sauron at the end of the third... the kind of progressive villain-death payback movie audiences are used to from movies such as Lethal Weapon and the Steven Seagal ouevre. It's a simplification of the work, but that's forgiveable: more importantly, it's an unnecessary and particularly inopportune one. (Even a subtler shading of the existing Saruman-Gandalf dialogue could have conveyed this plot point very differently.)

Did Jackson do this to avoid any allegorical reference to the current fight against terrorism, or just to increase his movie's appeal to the hack-and-slash, point-and-shoot crowd? A good question: I can't tell. It's nowhere near enough of a problem to take this from a five-star to a four-star film by any means, but it is the most notable, and telling omission in the first part of what I am still confident will be a movie trilogy for the ages.

Posted by BruceR at 10:18 PM

In case anyone was wondering,

In case anyone was wondering, a double attack of bronchitis and a shoulder injury kept me away from computers for a week. I've missed you all, too.

Posted by BruceR at 09:29 PM



I don't want to be too hard on the Toronto Star's Kathleen Kenna in Afghanistan. For the most part she's done a pretty good job of things on this assignment. But I can't resist pointing out one egregious typo in her Dec. 31 piece on the Hazarajat, "Struggling for survival in Afghan 'hunger belt'":

"Twenty-two of our trucks were bombed in November by the Americans who thought it was a (Taliban) convoy," [the World Food Program's Fayyez] Shah says.
Most of the 15,000 tonnes of wheat from the wrecked convoy was saved and no drivers were injured -- they watched the airstrike during a roadside tea break. Another 15,000 tonnes of wheat has left Pakistan and should reach the Hazarajat within days.

That works out to a staggering 681 tonnes of wheat per truck that those wicked Americans bombed... horrible, horrible. How much is that? Well, imagine a truck that's carrying five fully loaded Boeing 757 jetliners... then add another 757. Either that, or that would be a typo... think you'd have caught it?

Actually, given that the likely prime mover for these food donors was likely a Tata or Ashok Leyland commercial mover (let's just say semis aren't common on South Asian highways yet) the most grain that could possibly have been lost from 22 trucks being gunned up on the Afghan road would have been 150-200 tonnes... and as stated, most of that grain was actually recovered, as one would expect, grain trucks not normally known for blowing up real good. It was still a stupid error on the part of some U.S. air force or navy flyer, but hardly a dent in the amount of food the WFP needs to lift monthly to the Hazarajat to save lives... assuming they could replace the vehicles reasonably quickly, that is. But interdicting the movement of 15,000 tonnes of wheat (imagine a line of trucks, bumper to bumper, stretching over 10 kilometres) in one sortie would have been quite the kill sack, indeed.

Earlier on in the piece, Kenna correctly documents one of the Taliban's more atrocious crimes... the complete cut off of food and forced famine of their Shiite Hazara areas since 1998... a problem that would have only ended with Western intervention or the starvation and genocide of 4 million Afghans whose religious beliefs were incompatible with the Taliban's own. Did we really need to justify going to war against these people to anyone?

Posted by BruceR at 09:27 PM