Thursday, June 21, 2007

A New Taliban?

"It would be a good idea to declare an amnesty for all the indigenous Taliban and bring them into the mainstream of politics. The foreign Taliban should be kept out." -Rahmat Gul, a teacher from Asad Khyl, Afghanistan, talking to the BBC.

How serendipitous to find a special week devoted to Afghanistan and a long line of articles streaming down the BBC news web page! Lately I've grown weary of NYT's tactical reports and have been wondering, "Who are these new Taliban, anyway?"

From the reports you'd find in the Times, at least, it appears that the new Taliban insurgents aren't nearly as skilled as the battle-hardened Taliban founder, Muhammad Omar. Check out the video by C.J. Chivers for the Times, depicting a Taliban ambush on Dutch troops last April. Running around the battlefield, facing a town in the middle of a lush Afghan valley, Chivers balked at how the Taliban kept "missing and missing." According to a BBC Q&A with some villagers in Asad Khyl,, however, the current Taliban forces still speak in the name of Islam as they desecrate its tenets. So far I haven't seen any indication as to who the current Taliban leadership is, or what their goals are.

But I see the bombings increase in what many new reports describe as an "Iraq-style" insurgency. The same goes for the insurgency in Somalia--it too is "Iraq-style," full of roadside bombings and suicide attacks. Perhaps the mujahideen from the Soviet invasion have faded off like old war heroes, and a new glut of holy warriors are finding their training and ideological backbone in Iraq. Perhaps Congress' "new direction" should take into account that Iraq will be a recruiting platform and training ground for years to come.

Nevertheless, I want to know: are the current Taliban local or foreign? Holy warriors intent on ridding the country of an American presence? Or Wahhab zealots, purer, presumably, than the civilians they profess to fight for, even as they blow them up in suicide bombings? I'll keep searching for dirt on the Taliban's leadership and get back to you on that.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Bruise Cruise

[Photo by Nadia Chaudhury. Thanks goes to Floating the Apple and The Buc for providing boats and naturely expertise. Thanks also goes to everyone on the trip, for great attitudes!]

I returned yesterday with spots on my limbs charred by sun: the ridges of my ears, my knees, squares on my feet that went uncovered by sandals. I spent Sunday night through Tuesday morning on an epic, 30 or so mile row down the Hudson in a Whitehall gig--a long, Viking kind of boat. I left in a group of fourteen from Croton point in Westchester to Pier 40 in Manhattan. Don't worry, we all survived.

The team included Outside magazine starlet Rob Buchanan and Roger, a fit 50 year old in speedos, who toted a beaten up guitar. Buchanan, in tune with nature like a metronome with rhythm, led the team. All the while, he studied our path in the "Hudson River Bible", as he called it--a comprehensive survey of the Hudson and notes about the cliffs and beaches that flank it. When we weren't rowing, we were swimming, eating or napping. Roger offered a giant bag of buns and other fresh foods, which he had recently yanked from a gourmet food outlet's dumpster. Roger also strummed his guitar to some classic bluegrass tunes.

I could use plenty of adjectives and verbs to describe the beauty we found at each stop, but for someone like myself, who has spent the last few years living in New York City, the experience was nearly ineffable. Still, for the sake of my overly modest readership, I'll hazard an attempt at description.

On night one we rowed briefly to a sandy beach, trudged up a hill and set up camp, then returned for a picturesque fire at dusk, prepared by the heroic Nadia Chaudhury and her traveling partner, Jon. We roasted marshmallows as the cool tide swooshed over an old picnic table.

The next day we stopped at the "Italian Gardens," on the Palisades near Alpine, New Jersey. Here was a ruinous "sculpture garden" originally designed to look like ruins: a jagged rock waterfall with uneven steps leading to the top, which opens to a vibrant glut of wilderness, a few barely discernible trails and thick patches of poison ivy. A few of us set out to find the Earth Observatory nearby, searching for water. We had trouble weaving our way through the tangle of wilderness and two of our team gave up a couple minutes before a young girl in jeans came walking by. She told us she was heading home from work. We heard the faint rumble of a construction site. It turned out that a seismic research center lay only a few hundred yards away. We found a paved road and, across from it, the center. It had an ugly, bungalow-style architecture, but a very kind staff. One fellow handed us two gallon jugs and we helped ourselves to filtered water from a kitchen sink.

We waited for the tide to turn--Rob told me the Hudson runs both north and south, because it is no mere river, but an arm of the ocean. Before we set off, four young hikers who had gotten lost along the trail from Alpine approached us. Rob offered that we could row them back to safety, since we were all heading for the same place. They turned out to be able rowers, pressing through the rough wind and waves that rocked the boats around.

The next morning we rose at the crack of dawn and shoved off at about 6 a.m. Here, taking the first strokes and drifting into the Hudson in the early morning, I found serenity.

We rowed through Manhattan. We made a short stop on a beach in Hoboken. We returned to the Pier, back to the reality of my dirty New York life, at 11:05 a.m., according to Rob's clock.

For pics, check this out: