Postcard — October 8, 2015, 2:20 pm

Border Lands

Battle fatigue in Kashmir

Photograph by the author.

Photograph by the author

For centuries, writers have romanticized the Jammu and Kashmir region, an eighty-five-mile basin that today encompasses the disputed border between India and Pakistan. From the window of my plane, I could see why: the Pir Panjal Range met the Greater Himalayas like a wrinkled white curtain, exposing a fertile hotbed of saffron fields, forested hills, almond and walnut groves, apple trees, apricot orchards, and rice paddies. At the airport, I was greeted with signs that read “Paradise on Earth”—a strange slogan for a valley that has seen three full-blown wars and hundreds of thousands of deaths since the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947.

I hailed a cab to Dal Lake—a destination for tourists and the hub of Kashmir’s flailing economy. On the way, we drove through Srinagar, the capital that lies at the heart of many conflicts in India-controlled Kashmir. It was early May, and there were no traces of the protests that had broken out a week prior; only long-collapsed houses and red-dust-stained windowsills. The roads were flanked with ten-foot walls bearing water stains from last September’s severe flooding, which left around 300 dead. Women in hijabs and lipstick stared at me; police and army men with long Kalashnikovs lined the streets, a trio on every corner. Fading signs read: “Study Abroad CANADA, UK, AUSTRALIA.” The occasional small, green Pakistani flag could be spotted hanging in a window or etched into a stone wall. Everywhere, Indian flags were large and high-flying.

My driver was wearing a black mafia-style suit jacket and Elvis sunglasses. He spoke in broken, raspy English. “Bad tourists this year,” he told me. The streets were empty, filled with shops boarded shut. “But it is better than five years ago,” he added. Of those who ventured up to one of India’s “most dangerous” and disputed territories, most came on organized tours set up by middlemen in Delhi or Mumbai. The little money locals made came from the tourists who purchased 30-rupee ($.50) sweet kulfi snacks, 20-rupee ($.25) steaming-hot chai, or 200-rupee ($3) shikara boat rides.

After almost an hour of dense traffic, my taxi arrived at the Chicago Houseboat, one of hundreds of intricately carved boats floating in the lake. Ajaz, a large man with a long nose, came to shake my hand, offering me cookies and tea. The call to prayer echoed quietly through the cool air as the boat rocked from a passing wake.

“You are welcome here,” Ajaz said. I was his only guest that night, and he seemed eager to talk about the economy, the floods. “The government gave us two thousand, three hundred rupees [$36] for the flood damage,” he explained with tired, drooping eyes. I asked him about the violence in Jammu and Kashmir, but he dismissed me. “We’re at peace now,” he said.

Kashmir has been simmering with political discontent since 1947, when the British sold the predominantly Muslim valley to Gulab Singh, an infamously brutal Hindu maharaja, for 7.5 million rupees. Prior to Partition, the valley had been an unusually tolerant melting pot of Ladakhi Buddhists, Muslims, and Jammu’s Hindus—a fraction that amalgamated under a mounting British anxiety to prevent Tsarist Russian expansion in the nineteenth century. In 1948, Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, “the Lion of Kashmir,” became the first prime minister of the newly formed state. Abdullah was, for the most part, radically in support of an independent Kashmir—he called for a plebiscite that had been promised by India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Five years later, in 1953, after Pakistani tribesmen invaded the region, upsetting India-Pakistan relations, Abdullah was imprisoned by India for trying to legitimize the valley’s autonomy.

The plebiscite Nehru had promised never materialized. Meanwhile, India’s relations with Pakistan quickly disintegrated, and Nehru didn’t want to endanger his grip on Kashmir. In 1972, the United Nations intervened to establish the Line of Control (LoC), the border that still divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. The LoC, however, hasn’t stopped Islamist-led insurgency groups in Pakistan from crossing over. Some of them—like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) and Hizbul Mujahideen—are declared terrorist groups who recruit disgruntled Kashmiri youth.

In 1990, the Indian army responded to the insurgency threats by passing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gave the army the power to eliminate suspected militants in Kashmir. By the early 1990s, Kashmiri youth began disappearing in droves, slipping across the border in the middle of the night to join training camps in Pakistan to fight against the Indian Army. Terror reigned. Over half a million Indian troops were stationed in Kashmir, and the valley became one of the most militarized zones in the world.

For the past five years, Jammu and Kashmir has been relatively calm on both sides of the border. At a détente, even. But every so often, an event will flare up in the valley, and if it’s large enough, the news will trickle down to the rest of India. A major scuffle happened on April 16 this year, when then-eighty-five-year-old ailing Syed Ali Shah Geelani, arguably one of India’s most controversial figures, returned to his home in Srinagar from Delhi. Geelani is the leader of the separatist party Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, which advocates for Kashmir to break from India and join Pakistan. A raucous crowd of young separatists greeted Geelani, chanting “azadi!—freedom.

The rally for Syed Geelani was front-page news in India the next morning: “Separatists raise Pakistani flag in Srinagar, insult India,” the Times of India wrote. To no one’s surprise, Geelani was placed under house arrest within a few days of his return—as per routine when things get tense in Kashmir. The leader of the rally, Geelani’s forty-five-year-old mentee Masarat Alam, was imprisoned on charges of sedition. The next day, hundreds took to the streets protesting Alam’s arrest, resulting in the death of two young protestors who were shot by police. Shortly after, Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistani jihadi leader with a $10-million U.S.-issued bounty on his head, who allegedly masterminded the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed, held protests in Lahore in support of the pro-Pakistan rally: “Jihad is the only way if India doesn’t give people their right,” Saeed told Pakistani media in a television interview. Schools, shops, gas stations, and public transportation went on a weeklong lockdown in Srinagar. But little changed. India’s aggressively Hindu prime minister, Narendra Modi, hasn’t show much interest in bringing about peace in the valley. “I want to give assurance,” he said, “we will not have any compromises on the country’s unity.”

There is a frustrated, repetitive quality to the fighting in Kashmir—educated, jobless young men inspired by separatist leaders pelt stones at police after Friday mosque prayers; police sometimes fire back; shops shut down and then reopen a week later; the economy suffers. A surging militancy movement in the ’90s left some 70,000 people dead and an estimated 10,000 more still missing. As of late, there has been relative calm between India and Pakistan. A former Kashmir Army general I met with in New Delhi explained the peace this way: “Ninety to ninety-five percent of the people just want their daily bread. Kashmiris don’t want to join Pakistan. And the will of the people will prevail. The radical chairs will die.” He summed up the present situation in two words: “battle fatigue.”

The day after I arrived in Srinagar, I visited Geelani in a dilapidated gray stone mansion with shuttered windows. Located in Hyderpora, a posh neighborhood near the airport, the house has served, since 2002, as the headquarters of Geelani’s faction of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference, an operation funded by private donors largely from the Gulf Region. I was told by Asif Qureshi, the bureau chief for ABP News in Srinagar, that Geelani was put in charge of one faction of the A.L.H.C.. Though Hurriyat is divided—some groups want a free and independent Kashmir, others a Pakistan-owned Kashmir—it remains the single active political machine pushing for Kashmir’s freedom, and hosts roughly thirty various separatist groups under one umbrella. A small, dusty white sign with a large Pakistani flag on it hung at the top of the house. “Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, Jammu & Kashmir,” it read. Its blue letters were fading from the sun.

“No photos,” the army officer standing outside told me. An army truck was parked outside Geelani’s front door. A crowd of men in plain clothes suddenly materialized in front of me. “You are not allowed inside,” I was told. “He is on house arrest.” India considers Geelani a major threat; he has been kept on house arrest intermittently for over twenty years. The threat has less to do with wanting an independent state and more to do with his potential ties to Pakistani terrorist groups.

Inside the house, word spread that a foreign visitor had arrived. Men in white topees began poking their heads though the windows. After some commotion and hushed whispers, Geelani himself appeared at the window, his symmetrically trimmed white beard matching his gilaba. “My daughters,” he called out to me and an Indian journalist named Shorbori. “You see the conditions we are forced to live in?” He smiled wearily. He had a calm, bright-eyed presence and didn’t look like the man who’d publicly condemned the killing of Osama bin Laden, or the man with reportedly close ties to Hafiz Saeed, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists, currently living freely in Pakistan.

“He’s coming down, he’s coming down!” Excited whispers resonated in the cool afternoon air.

As soon as Geelani appeared at the front door, giving the army officer stationed outside a disingenuous hug, the crowd of young men lingering outside rushed to meet him. The army officials barred us from entering. Geelani nodded and waved to us from his crowded doorway; his left eye was sagging, his shoulders drooping from old age. “You may call me,” Geelani said, as someone brought us water bottles. His press agent shouted out Geelani’s personal cell number from the window. Geelani hovered at his door, shrinking into the shadows as more men came to shake his hand. “Goodbye, my daughters,” he said. The door shut quickly behind him.

Later that night, after catching a three-wheeled auto rickshaw, a motorized version of the traditional tricycle, back to Dal Lake, we phoned Geelani. I was eager to hear what one of India’s most controversial figures had to say about Kashmir’s alleged ties to terrorism—and whether, under Prime Minister Modi, he thought the conflict would resolve any time soon. He sounded eager to talk, his voice slow and deliberate.                            

When Masarat Alam was arrested, I said to Geelani, he was accused of being mentored by the Pakistani “terrorist” Hafiz Saeed. Are there any links?

“No, not at all,” Geelani responded. “He was released after about five years, and there was not any justification for the government to arrest him and send him to Jammu jail. So this is really terrorism, and this is illegal, and this is immoral, and this is an inhuman act by the government.”

But, I countered, Mr. Hafiz Saeed has been said to be influencing Kashmiri youth?

“Mr. Saeed is in Pakistan. How can he come here and help us? This is media hype and the media is extremely—I will tell you without any exaggeration—that as far as Indian media is concerned, they are extremely biased.”

Are there any links between “terrorist” groups in Pakistan and separatist groups in Kashmir, as has been claimed by the media?

“They are not sending youth and militants here. If any militant is here, they are local. Pakistan is supporting the people of Jammu and Kashmir politically and morally.”

But weren’t Hezbollah and Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front groups trained in Pakistan?

“That was in the ’90s.”

And now?

“Now, there is sedate terrorism as far as the militants are concerned. There are hardly one hundred more or less. Nothing else.”

Do you think dialogues between India and Pakistan will help resolve the issue?

“I will tell you one hundred and fifty times, the dialogue has started and happened, and nothing has come out. India is one week saying they are ready for a dialogue, but another week, saying Jammu and Kashmir is a part of India.”

What’s the alternative?

“The world committee should see what is happening here. The majority of the people of Jammu and Kashmir are facing the worst kind of state terrorism. This is a moral and human obligation for the U.N. Security Council and the world powers. This is an international problem like Palestine is an international problem.”

Just then, the call to prayer came in a chorus of baritone loudspeakers. Geelani’s voice had begun to fade. “Excuse me, my dear daughters,” he said, clearing his throat. “But there is the call to prayers.”

I thanked him and hung up, imagining him in the mansion he’s occupied for the past twenty years, leading the small group of men through prayers just as he leads them through politics.

Geelani’s insistence that he is a pacifist is somewhat puzzling. He sits at the head of an organization that has birthed violent militancy branches like Hezbollah Mujahadeen and the Muslim League. And after Osama bin Laden was killed, he led hundreds of people in funeral prayers in Srinagar. Still, his calls for nonviolence have no doubt helped keep the valley relatively peaceful the past few years. Despite his age and his failing health—he was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2007—young men still follow him. A profile about him in India’s Caravan magazine reported how in 2010, over sixty young people died in protests after an army officer’s tear-gas shell killed a high school student in Srinagar. The Indian army was unable to quell the fighting. Kashmir’s chief minister, Omar Abdullah, called on Geelani for help. Geelani gave a live press conference outside of his house in August: “We will fight peacefully. If [the police] stop you, you sit down and ask them to open fire,” he said. The fighting seemed to stop overnight.

There appear to be two Kashmirs within India. The first is the Kashmir India wants to see—the “Paradise on Earth” where you are driven past plush saffron fields and snow-capped mountains, and taken on an organized tour of the Indira Gandhi tulip garden and the famous Shankaracharya Temple that lies barricaded atop a cliff. The second is the Kashmir trapped by fighting—where Syeed Geelani and other separatist leaders are still considered Che Guevaras by many. It is a land littered with empty beer bottles, where army camps and Muslim villages hang India’s sacred cow skulls from barbed wire, where Lashkar-e-Taiba emblems and “Free Gaza” etchings tattoo crumbling walls.

The morning I had to leave Srinagar, I ran into a shop across from Dal Lake to pick up a water bottle. Unlike Delhi’s shops, which are loaded with goods, this shop sold only water, soda, chocolate, and chips.

“Where are you from?” The shop owner asked. He looked tired.

“America,” I told him. His face remained in a still frown.

“Rich country,” he mumbled, handing me a water bottle.

When I got back to Delhi, I met with Wajahat Habibullah, the former deputy commissioner of Kashmir, who reiterated the question that seems to be the focal point for past and future arguments: “The question of Kashmir needs to be: What do the people want?”

Azadi?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“No two Kashmiris will be able to tell you what they mean by ‘azadi.’ But if Kashmiris are allowed to relish in the scope of all India has to offer, they will surely feel they are free citizens. My view is that the separatists are ready to talk to the Indian government, and vice versa, but no one is willing to come out and say it.”

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

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Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

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Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
How to Start a Nuclear War·

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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