July 29, 2008

From Counterinsurgents to Peacekeepers

Associated Press Baghdad Bureau Chief Robert Reid and his chief military reporter Robert Burns published a dispatch from Iraq over the weekend that should have made banner headlines. “It's not the end of fighting,” they wrote. “It looks like the beginning of a perilous peace.” This is exactly right, but millions of Americans still have no idea. Coverage from Iraq has diminished as much as the casualty rates since General David Petraeus implemented an effective counterinsurgency strategy in early 2007. At least we’re finally seeing a media consensus emerge after a year and a half of looking at the data as though it were inkblots on a Rorschach. It’s nearly impossible to work in Iraq anymore and deny what has happened.

Even so, this is no time to get recklessly drunk on victory and declare “mission accomplished.” Nor is this the time to bolt for the exits from an unpopular war. The peace, as Burns and Reid say, is perilous and only just now beginning. The war is still not actually even over, though the fighting has been greatly reduced. Every single last inch of progress can be reversed. Keeping the relative peace will be just as difficult, though less dangerous, than making it in the first place. “[J]udging from the security gains that have been sustained over the first half of this year,” they wrote, “as the Pentagon withdrew five Army brigades sent as reinforcements in 2007 — the remaining troops could be used as peacekeepers more than combatants.”

That’s basically already happening. The transformation of American soldiers and Marines from counterinsurgent combatants to peacekeepers has taken place all over Iraq. In fact, the most radical of General Petraeus’s strategic overhaul was the positioning of troops as peacekeepers and the defenders of Iraqi civilians before the fighting even abated. That is what brought so many Iraqis over to the American side. Some places in Iraq were so horrifically violent that nothing resembling a normal life was even possible until someone stepped in to provide basic security. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Moqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia weren’t going to do it. They were the groups that threatened Iraqi security. And the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police were too under trained, under equipped, understaffed, and corrupt to do it themselves.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:48 PM | Comments (33)

July 28, 2008

The Bin Ladens of the Balkans, Part II

I met Shpetim Mahmudi at a covered outdoor cafe on a cold day in late spring in the ethnic Albanian region of Macedonia. Black clouds hung low over the city of Tetovo. Fat rain drops pelted the sidewalk and the awning over my head as I shivered in my light black leather jacket. “Let's go inside,” he said, “where it's warmer and drier.” We found a table and ordered coffee. He leaned in close to whisper when the waiter stepped out of earshot. “We are really in trouble here,” he said. “We are really in trouble with the Wahhabis.”

After the Kosovo War ended in 1999, well-heeled Gulf Arabs with Saudi money moved in to rebuild mosques destroyed by Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslav army and paramilitary forces. They're still there trying to impose a stern Wahhabi interpretation of Islam on indigenous Europeans, and they're having an awfully difficult time getting much traction. Almost everyone in Kosovo despises these people. They are known as the Binladensa, the people of Osama bin Laden.

Things are different in next-door Macedonia. I had driven two hours from Kosovo's capital Prishtina through beautifully sculpted mountains and forest to Tetovo near the Kosovo and Albanian borders.

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The Kosovo side of the Kosovo-Macedonia border

What I saw there was startling.

Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country. Macedonia isn't. Only a third of Macedonia's people are Muslims. Most Muslims in both countries are ethnic Albanians, but the difference between the two came like a shock – and not in the way you might expect. Aside from the mosque minarets, Kosovo doesn't look or feel like a Muslim country at all. Its culture and politics are thoroughly secular, and its believers are not demonstrative about their religion. A huge number of people in Tetovo, though, looked like they had been airlifted in from the Middle East.

Macedonia Map.JPG

I spent three weeks in Kosovo and saw no more than one or two women each day wearing a hijab – an Islamic headscarf – over their hair.

Albanians in Kosovo

In Macedonia I saw dozens wearing a hijab in just ten minutes while driving to the cafe to meet Shpetim Mahmudi. I even saw a handful of women wearing an all-enveloping black abaya -- the closest thing the Arab world has to a burkha.

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An Albanian woman Tetovo, Macedonia

I never once saw one of those in Kosovo, not even in villages. As soon as I crossed the border into Macedonia, I felt like I had been whisked through a hole in the dimension from southeastern Europe to somewhere in Arabia.

Hijabs aren't strictly Islamic. There are Muslim countries all over the world where few women wear them. It's a cultural import from the Arab world. There is nothing wrong with wearing a hijab by choice (they are required by law in Iran), and it would be wrong to assume a woman or her family are Islamist extremists based on their head gear, but I was still startled to see so many in Macedonia. Albanian women do not traditionally wear them. It was obvious that soft-imperial Arab “missionaries” from the Gulf are having a much more profound effect on the ground in Macedonia than in Kosovo.

Shpetim Mahmudi teaches at the University of Tetovo and belongs to the Bektashi order of Sufi mystics. The Bektashis are part of a distinct branch of Shia Islam, and many self-identify as the most liberal on Earth. These are the last people in the Islamic world who will join any kind of jihad. They drink alcohol, for instance, and they are not obligated to pray five times every day in a mosque. Bektashi women don't wear oppressive clothing, and their feelings of openness toward people of other faiths is genuine. Naturally they are detested by Wahhabis and other radical Sunnis as much as they would be if they were pagans or Jews.

Shpetim Mahmudi.jpg
Shpetim Mahmudi

“We don’t pray 5 times a day like the Sunnis,” Mahmudi said. “We are similar to Ismailis, and we’re treated badly in Turkey because we don’t go to the mosque. Here in Macedonia, the Sunnis don’t treat us as Muslims. They say this sometimes. They want to be the only one representing the entire community, and they say we should come under their umbrella.”

Bektashi Sufis are no less Islamic than the Wahhabis. They are arguably even more so. Their order is hundreds of years older, after all. But they aren't chauvinists about their religion, and they don't spend billions in petrodollars on a crusade to convert the planet.

“We have nothing to do with the Arab ways,” he said, “but now we’re dressing like them. This is not nice for us. We are close to Americans, not the Middle East. We don’t have that in Albania.”

“Is it getting better or worse here?” I said.

“It was worse ten years ago,” he said. “But it has always been worse in Macedonia. There have always been more fundamentalists here. Macedonia is poorer and less educated. Now it is getting better. But it is changing slowly.”

It’s hard to believe it was worse ten years ago. The difference between the Albanian region of Macedonia and the Albanian regions of every other place – Albania proper, Kosovo, and Montenegro – amazed me. Also, there were no Wahhabis in Macedonia or anywhere else in Yugoslavia during the communist era. The Macedonian Muslim community appears to be fracturing. If a majority of Albanian-Macedonian Muslims are becoming more secular and modern at the same time a minority is becoming more radical – watch out.

Few outsiders know it, but Macedonia is the most recent country in the former Yugoslavia that experienced war. It erupted in 2001, and it was the only conflict in the former Yugoslavia where Serbian nationalists weren’t among the combatants. Albanian separatists fought and lost a struggle for independence against the Macedonian state. They did not face anything like the brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign Albanians suffered in Kosovo and Bosniaks suffered in Bosnia. Casualties were relatively low on both sides, and the international community shrugged.

I did not visit Macedonia’s capital Skopje, but the portion of the country I did see seemed the most backward of the former republics of Yugoslavia. Economic development in the Albanian region, at least, is at least as sluggish as in stagnating Kosovo, if not more so. I saw many old wheezing Yugos on the roads, for instance, and I didn’t notice any, not a single one, anywhere else on my trip through seven Balkan countries. Macedonia was not a place I wanted to stick around long. I later drove through the area again with a car full of Kosovars on a trip to Tirana, Albania, and one of my traveling companions said something that didn’t surprise me.

“There are no young people left in this village,” she said as we passed through a small town near the Albanian border. “Most of them moved to America. They will never be back.”

“How much power do the Wahhabis have here?” I said to Mahmudi as we sipped our coffee in the café.

“They control seven mosques in Tetovo,” he said.

“Out of how many?” I said.

“There are 40 mosques here total,” he said. “Many people don’t like them.”

He was obviously afraid of them, or at least very cautious. He spoke so quietly when I asked him about the Wahhabis that using my voice recorder for the interview was impossible. I had to take notes by hand. If we spoke about anything other than the Wahhabi infiltration of Macedonia he spoke at a normal volume and didn’t mind if others heard what he said. I felt like I was interviewing a dissident in a total-surveillance police state. No one anywhere else in the former Yugoslavia – not in Serbia, not in Bosnia, and not in Kosovo – whispered like this when we talked about religion or politics. It seems the Wahhabis have successfully transformed this portion of Macedonia into what former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky calls a fear society.

“Why is it so much worse here than in Kosova?” I said. “It feels oppressive.”

“It’s different in Kosova,” he said, “thanks to America and NATO. If Kosova cooperated with Muslim countries instead, it would be different. Americans are bringing their culture to Kosova and Albania, but not to Macedonia.”

Arabs are bringing their culture to Macedonia. And the Macedonian government – astonishingly – is helping them do it.


Mahmudi’s place of Sufi worship – his tekke – is under assault by radical Sunnis who have seized most of the sprawling ancient Ottoman compound by force, converted portions of it for their own use, and desecrated its graves and its shrines. He took me there in my rented car, but we first paid a visit to the Painted Mosque.

We parked and walked in the rain. I zipped my camera inside my jacket to keep it dry.

“What do ethnic Macedonians thinks of Americans?” I said. Ethnic Macedonians are Slavic Orthodox Christians who once belonged to Yugoslavia, but they are not Serbs. They speak their own language, which is similar to Bulgarian, and they have their own cultural traditions.

“They burned American flags in Skopje recently,” he said. “They feel close to Serbia. But George Bush recognized Macedonia’s new name, so they are more pro-American now. The name is important here. I can understand.”

Most people from outside Greece and Macedonia couldn’t care less about a parochial issue like the name of the country, but locally it’s a big deal. Much of ancient Macedonia lies inside the borders of Greece. The Greeks protested its simple constitutional name, so the country was all but forced to provisionally name itself The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia instead of simply the Republic of Macedonia, or Macedonia. Controversy over whether “The Former Yugoslav Republic of” must remain part of its name still inflames nationalists in both countries.

The ancient Painted Mosque built by the Ottoman Turks in 1459 is the most beautiful small mosque I’ve ever seen.

Painted Mosque Exterior Macedonia.jpg
The Painted Mosque

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The front door of the Painted Mosque

“The fundamentalists hate painting,” he said, “but they have to deal with this.”

The mosque dates back to the 15th Century, but Mahmudi told me the colors were touched up again in the 18th. “They say the new colors are not as good as the originals,” he said.

Painted Wall Painted Mosque.jpg
A painted wall inside the Painted Mosque

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Inside the Painted Mosque

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Looking out a window from inside the Painted Mosque

It’s an architectural wonder no matter how muted the colors may be. I found myself wishing I could visit an entire city built with this amount of aesthetically pleasing detail. The Binladensa who despise it are philistines who would destroy everything beautiful and civilized in this world if they could.

Ottoman Building Macedonia.jpg

And they are trying. They’ve already wrecked parts of Mahmudi’s tekke.

We parked inside the compound and proceeded with caution. The Sufis only control parts of it now. Wahhabi-inspired Sunnis seized the rest of it.

“You see that?” he said and gestured to a building with opaque glass windows. “They took it from us and turned it into a classroom for their propaganda. An Egyptian woman teaches Albanian women in Arabic even though no one speaks Arabic here. Don’t let anyone see you take a picture of it.”

There weren’t many people around. We both made sure no one was looking. Then I snapped a quick picture and covered my camera again with my jacket.

Occupied Building Teqe Macedonia.jpg
One of the Sufi buildings at the tekke forcibly seized by radical Sunnis

“They attacked us again on the 5th of May,” he said. “They ripped down our Bektashi flag. They broke the spindles on the shrine here and stole the donation box. And they threatened the dervish.”

Bektashi and Albanian Flags Macedonia.jpg
The Bektashi flag (left) and the Albanian flag (right) at Tetovo’s Sufi tekke

Dervish Abdulmytalib Beqiri is in charge of the tekke – or at least the parts that haven’t been forcibly taken over.

Mahmudi introduced me to him inside one of the few remaining buildings the Sufis control. The three of us sat down to talk over coffee.

“Welcome to our tekke,” Dervish Beqiri said in Albanian. Mahmudi translated. “Thank you very much for your time.”

Dervish Macedonia.jpg
Dervish Abdulmytalib Beqiri

“Thank you for letting me visit,” I said.

“Americans are most welcome here,” he said.

“I see you have an American flag,” I said. You won’t find many of those in Islamic holy sites in the Arab world.

American Flag Gunslot Teqe Macedonia.jpg

“Yes,” Dervish Beqiri said. “We light up the flag with a candle at night. Do you know what those slots are for?” He meant the slot where the flag and candle were perched.

I had an idea.

“What are they for?” I said.

“They are for protecting the tekke,” he said. “We used to fire guns through those slots.”

The Bektashi Sufis participated in various resistance movements against the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

“Bektashis here always fought for the Albanian cause,” Dervish Beqiri. “Some clerics were at one tekke fighting the Turks, and the Turks came and occupied it. Inside were some non-Bektashis, some Orthodox Christians, and they were hidden in the tekke. The baba was very well-known and he took these Christians, put dervish clothes on them, and introduced them to the Turks as Dervish Mark and Dervish Michael, the same names, just with Dervish added. So this baba covered them and saved the lives of Christian people. Both the Christians and Muslims were fighting for the Albanian cause. The Bektashis will fight against occupation. For freedom. For schools. For educating people. Equality and tolerance are our values.”

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A Jewish gravestone chisled in Hebrew at the Sufi tekke

“When Osama Bin Laden attacked the two towers,” he continued, “the first cleric leader in the world who judged this crucial attack as non-human was the world Bektashi father at the headquarters in Tirana. He publicly denounced this attack. He even went to the Embassy of the U.S. to present his judgment.”

“How long have you had problems with the Wahhabis here?” I said.

“Serious trouble started three years ago when they broke gravestones,” he said. “They didn’t respect our saints. They also broke pictures of Imam Ali on the walls, and of the world head of the Bektashis. They cut the pictures with knives. They think we are too close to Christianity, in part because of the pictures and candles.” The Wahhabis hate candles. “Then the Sunnis came in and occupied the tekke. They said This is Muslim territory.

Ali Painting Macedonia.jpg
A painting of Ali. Shia Muslims, including Bektashi Sufis, believe his descendents are the rightful successors of Mohammad.

Of course the tekke was “Muslim territory” already. Bektashis are Muslims. But Sufis are often thought of as heretics and non-Muslim infidels by reactionary Sunnis.

“Look how they are manipulating people,” he said. “They want to convert the tekke into a woman’s madrassa. They want to move their administration here.”

“They are influenced by Arabs?” I said. It wasn’t really a question.

“Yes,” he said. “They are. And our government is weak. Arabs can manipulate us because our government is neglectful.”

The Macedonian government is worse than neglectful, actually. The state has formed an alliance of sorts with the Wahhabis, which is an extraordinary thing for a Christian-dominated government to do in a country where a third of the population are Muslims.

“Why would the government do this?” I said.

“It is convenient for the government because they can point at Albanians and call us terrorists,” he said.

But there is a lot more to it than that, and it strangely involves the Serbs and the Greeks who don’t recognize the autonomy of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. It’s a complicated mess. Fortunately we were able to speak in private and I could use my voice recorder again.

“The Macedonian church has a problem with their Pope,” Mahmudi explained. “This Pope, Jovan Vranishkovski, is under Serbian and Greek influence. He is paid by the Serbs. Because he is preaching at his church in Serbian. The Macedonian church is not recognized by the Serbs or the Greeks."

"The Macedonian Orthodox Church is against preaching in Serbian in Macedonian territory," he later added.

“Are the Greeks and the Serbs working together on this?” I said.

“Oh yes,” he said. “Because the Serbian church is supporting the Greek church against recognizing the Macedonian church as independent. The Greek church can recognize the Macedonian church as independent, but not under this name. They are not recognizing the name of the state and they are not recognizing the language, plus they are not recognizing the church. The Muslim community is supporting the Orthodox church against this Pope, and saying You should be independent, and this Pope should have his own church in Macedonia. The Muslim community is supporting the Orthodox church, so the Orthodox church is supporting the Muslim community against us. And the Macedonian government is under the influence of the Orthodox church. Plus, this political party – the national political party – they are investing a lot of money in the church building process, mosques also, etc. So you see, this government is sacrificing Bektashism because of the problem of the Orthodox Church with the Pope.”

Got that? The Balkans wouldn’t be the Balkans without this kind of convoluted political intrigue. It really is like the Middle East when it comes to this stuff.

Damaged Building Teqe Macedonia.jpg
This building was lightly damaged in Macedonia’s civil war in 2001

“During the conflict of 2001,” Dervish Beqiri said “some of our buildings were damaged in the fighting. We are a minority.”

“Who was doing the fighting?” I said.

“Macedonians and Albanians were doing the fighting,” he said.

“Were Bektashis involved?” I said.

“As a community, no,” he said, “but individually there may have been some involved. We are always against fighting. We are for finding peaceful solutions. In the past, Bektashis were involved in making wars, but it was for the Albanian cause, mainly against the Ottomans, and for making an independent Albania. We were very deeply involved in this. As Bektashis we are not against the state, and the state rules wherever we are. For example, Bektashis are in 31countries. Greek Bektashis are fighting for the cause of Greece, Albanian Bektashis for the Albanian cause. We respect the rule of the state no matter where we are. Bektashis in America will fight if America is involved in a war to protect America and American rules.”

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Ornate Ottoman-era architecture at the Bektashi tekke. Wahhabis despise this kind of artistic construction.

“Someone in Kosova was recently arrested for smuggling weapons into Macedonia,” I said. “Who in this region is armed?”

“I don’t know where these guns were going,” Mahmudi said.

“A lot of people around here have guns,” I said. That definitely includes the Wahhabis who often fire weapons even inside the tekke just a few dozen feet from where we were sitting.

“Before the election,” Mahmudi said, “at night you could hear weapons shooting. Just two days ago someone was shooting near here. Someone was shooting from here, inside the tekke. Many times we have reported to the police that people are shooting from inside this part of the tekke at night.”

“They are intimidating you,” I said.

“Mr. Katroshi is a guest here from Tirana,” Mahmudi said, “and he has noticed that the people from outside are not only trying to scare us with weapons, but are also looking at them as enemies and trying to provoke them in any way they can. The Sunnis are looking at the people coming here with an unfriendly eye. Even the guests that used to come here often are now not coming because they are scared. They are always provoked. The only people coming to the tekke are the people who must come, who have something important to do.”

“So they are trying to take the whole thing?” I said.

“They are trying to make us not come here at all,” Dervish Beqiri said. “They are trying to take over everything. It is a cycle of aggression. I was alone when the crucial attack happened. I saw some people speaking Albanian when I went out behind to feed the chickens. They attacked the grave of a saint, they broke the shrine, and they stole the donation box. They also broke the Bektashi flag, the green one that was just next to the Albanian flag. They didn’t touch that one, the national flag, the Albanian flag, they just broke the Bektashi flag. This means the attack was done by Muslim people. If it was Macedonians they would have broken both flags. So Muslims did this, for sure. Also there was a verbal attack after this from the people praying in our place that has been transformed into a kind of mosque.”

“What did they say to you?” I said.

Graves Teqe Macedonia.jpg
Sufi gravestones

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The coffins of Sufi saints

“Some are trying to accuse us of doing this to ourselves,” he said. “But Bektashis never do things against their properties. All Bektashis believe in the same graves. We keep them and pray to them. We believe that if we damage a grave God will punish us, so we are very afraid to do this, we would never do this. We keep the saint graves. The Muslims know this, they are trying to provoke us and claim that we have done it to ourselves. But no, really they did it. Plus, I see these Wahhabis around. Usually at night the Wahhabis are coming, sometimes in trousers, sometimes in their clothes, sometimes with the things on their heads and with beards.”

The next building over in the compound had been forcibly converted into a Sunni mosque. Speakers for the muezzin’s call to prayer were bolted to the side of the chimney. During our interview the call to prayer screeched from above. “Allahu Akbar…” the muezzin called. My Bektashi Sufi hosts groaned.

Minaret Teqe Macedonia.jpg
A chimney forcibly converted into a minarat by radical Sunnis

“Ugh,” Mahmudi said and made a face. “You see what we have to listen to five times a day? This is supposed to be a quiet place for meditation.”

“In the beginning, at night,” Dervish Beqiri said, “when they had full control of the city because of the conflict, the war, they were coming, preaching to the local people, preaching Wahhabism. When they came here, the Wahhabis, with the intent to take full control of the Muslim community, they used these people who had been studying in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. They were using them to put them in some of the mosques, and now they are in control of eight mosques with these people who had been studying in the Arab countries. But they couldn’t succeed in taking full control of the Muslim community. So now they are trying other ways to get influence like preaching to the local people their way of believing, trying to have some control, and even having some ideas of how to transform the tekke into their center. They couldn’t succeed in taking full control of the Muslim community because the Muslim community is not only Macedonian, but it is Kosovar, and from other Balkan countries, and their religion is influenced by the Hanafi Turkish school. It is Hanafism. They are now trying to at least change this tradition from Hanafism into their tradition. They are mainly Wahhabis, Salafi Wahhabis. They are using the fact that the local people are poor and unemployed, they are paying them to convert to Wahhabism. Also they are making people pray five times a day.”

“How much are they being paid?” I said.

“We are not sure,” he said, “maybe 200 or 300 dollars or Euros per month. They are paying more to convert women.”

I heard from a number of people in Kosovo that Saudi-funded Wahhabis are also trying to pay people there to attend their mosques and wear Arab clothing. I could not, however, verify whether or not that is true.

“So these are people who have studied in the Arab world and are bringing the ideas back from there,” I said. “Has there been any violence here between the Bektashis and the Sunnis?”

“Recently no,” Dervish Beqiri said, “because we have the support of the American Embassy and also the Albanian political party in government. Once we get support from someone they get angry and try to provoke us. But we stay away, we don’t get involved in violent acts. There have been some attempts at attacks, but small ones. No physical attacks just small attempts. We always escape from such situations. Such a conflict is exactly what they want.”

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A bullet hole in the tekke from Macedonia’s civil war in 2001

I am only aware of small violent incidents in Macedonia since the civil war in 2001, but that isn’t for lack of trying on the part of some people. 17 suspected terrorists were rounded up in this city last year, and just a few days ago they were given a combined total of 192 years in prison. One is from Serbia, one is from Kosovo, one is from Albania, and the other 14 are apparently from Macedonia. Lirim Jakupi, the Albanian from Serbia, is nicknamed the “Nazi Commander.” They are allegedly Wahhabis linked to local foundations from Saudi Arabia. They were caught with modern sophisticated weaponry, including laser-guided anti-aircraft missiles.

“In Albania,” Dervish Beqiri said, “the Muslim community is having some problems with these Wahhabis, but these are small problems. The Muslim communities are all against them, which is not the case in Macedonia. In Albania they are always against them. We don’t have that here. The Muslim population of Albania and Kosova is more educated. We have recently a university in Albania, so they are more educated and they don’t get easily involved. The Wahhabis are always trying to get involved, and it is easy for them to get involved in the less well-educated population and the poor population.”

“Is the tension with the Bektashis and the Sunnis only with the Wahhabis?” I said.

“These parts of our buildings are taken by violence from the Sunni community, so in a way we have a problem with the Sunni community, but the basis is the Wahhabism. It is mainly the Wahhabi part of the Muslim community. But also they are using the Wahhabis to realize their goals, so we have a problem with both.”

“So they are working together against you,” I said. “Do they also have problems with each other?”

“Yes,” he said. “They were shooting at each other during the elections for the president of the Muslim communities in Macedonia. The one who was to be chief of the Muslim communities was on the blacklist of America. His name is Zenun Berisha. He was the president of the Skopje branch of the Muslim community, and he pretended to become the president of the Muslim community of Macedonia.. He is on the American blacklist because of his links with foreign extremists. He wanted to be the head, but he didn’t succeed. And they used firearms. They didn’t kill, but they did this with violence.”

Covered Woman Inside Teqe Macedonia.jpg

When Mahmudi escorted me back to my car, a woman entered the tekke wearing a tent-like abaya.

“Look at that,” he said. “We never had that. Take a picture, take a picture.”

I took several pictures. I don’t think she saw me. I’ve seen many women dressed like that in the Arab world – especially in ferociously reactionary cities in Iraq like Fallujah – but never anywhere else in the Balkans.

“Please publish these pictues,” he said. “Show the world what is happening here.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:11 AM | Comments (51)

July 26, 2008

Defining “Victory” in Iraq

As recently as the first half of 2007, the idea of an American victory in Iraq seemed like a fantasy to just about everyone, including me. General David Petraeus surged additional troops to Iraq, however, and he transformed the joint American-Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy into what nearly all observers now acknowledge is a remarkable and unexpected success. Few bother to argue otherwise anymore. What remains ambiguous and contested is the definition of an American victory.

It’s slightly tricky for a couple of reasons. Pinpointing the exact date when a counterinsurgency ends – not just in Iraq, but any counterinsurgency – is impossible. There are no final battles. There can’t be. And if we don’t know when the war is over, it can be difficult to figure out what over even means in the first place. So how will we know if we’ve won?

Part of the problem here is that the war in Iraq is usually thought of as a single war in Iraq. But there have been at least three wars in Iraq since 2003 – the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime, the civil war between Sunni and Shia militias, and the insurgencies against government and international forces waged by a constellation of guerrilla and terrorist groups. All three wars are distinct from each other, and two of the three are already over.

The war against Saddam Hussein and his government ended when the regime was overthrown and what remained of its army was disbanded. You might say it didn’t officially end until he was captured in December of 2003, but he effectively lost when he was demoted from absolute dictator to fugitive. No matter what else might happen, Saddam Hussein will never be considered victorious.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:23 AM | Comments (50)

July 23, 2008

Lebanon's Blood Holiday

Lee Smith (who sometimes pens guest columns for this Web site) just published a strong piece in the new British foreign policy magazine Standpoint about Lebanon's celebration of the return of child-killer Samir Kuntar from the prisons of Israel. The whole sordid episode besmirches Lebanon, but, as he demonstrates, plenty of Lebanese are rightly disgusted. More importantly he shows that while Lebanon is in real trouble right now, Hezbollah is doomed in the long run.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:37 PM | Comments (47)

Azerbaijan, Here I Come -- UPDATED

So I just got invited to a week-long conference in the mysterious country of Azerbaijan in August.

I can't help but wonder how many people even know where it is. (It's between Iran and Russia, and around a fourth of Iranians are ethnic Azeris. One Iranian province is actually called Western Azerbaijan. The former name of the country was the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic.)

It should be damned interesting. I'll publish at least one article from there before I return to Iraq, and more than one article if it's interesting enough.

Tell me: what would you like to know about this place?

UPDATE: A reader asked what this conference is all about. It is being hosted by the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy, and it is called "Views from America 2008." There will be panel discussions on at least four topics: Elections in the U.S., pop culture's impact on the American image, the role of the Internet in politics, and the future of secularism and moderation in Islam.

The conference will last one day, but I'll be in country for a week. Meetings are being arranged with senior government officials including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, religious leaders, business executives, and think tank professionals.

So if you could talk to these people, what would you ask them? I can think of my own questions, of course, but you're my readers and some of you dontate money to my account, so I want to know what you want to read about.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 4:15 PM | Comments (14)

July 22, 2008

Blog Talk Radio

I was a guest on The Rick Moran Show earlier today, and we spent an hour talking about the Balkans, Iraq, and Lebanon. Rick introduced me as "the most interesting man in the world," which is a hilarious overstatement. Thanks, Rick, but come on, man. Only one person can be that interesting, and it ain't me. Anyway, we had a good time for an hour, and you can listen to the whole thing here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:20 PM | Comments (18)

July 21, 2008

The Bin Ladens of the Balkans, Part I

Around a thousand mujahideen, veteran Arabic fighters from the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, showed up in Bosnia in the mid-1990s to fight a jihad against Serbian Orthodox Christians. They thought they would be welcomed, and they were right. The European community imposed an arms embargo on all of Yugoslavia during the Bosnian civil war which preserved the imbalance of power and arms in favor of Slobodan Milosevic and his nationalist Bosnian Serb comrades in arms. The Bosnian army was multi-ethnic and multi-confessional – it included Serb and Croat Christians as well as Bosniak Muslims – but its leaders chose to accept help from the so-called “Afghan Arabs” because they were desperate.

The radical Arab mujahideen matured slightly between the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and they probed the anti-Milosevic guerilla movement known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) to see if they could lend a hand there, as well. Kosovo, though, isn’t Bosnia. 90 percent of the population is ethnically Albanian, and most of them are at least nominally Muslims, but the KLA wasn’t too keen on throwing open the doors to their country to violent Middle Eastern fanatics. “In the two years that I covered the conflict in Kosovo,” journalist Stacy Sullivan wrote, “never once did I see the mujahideen fighters I saw in Bosnia, or hear KLA soldiers even allude to any kind of commitment to Islam. Most said they were offended by such allegations, bragged about how they were Catholic before the Ottomans came and converted them, and said their only religion was Albanianism.”

Even so, the likes of Al Qaeda wanted to “help.” Representatives of Osama bin Laden approached a Brooklyn man named Florin Krasniqi and said they wanted to send men into Kosovo to fight a jihad against Serbs.

Krasniqi is an Albanian-American roofer who ran what he called the Homeland Calling Fund to raise money for the KLA back home. He raised 30 million dollars from Albanian-Americans and sent cargo planes stocked full of weapons and uniforms from the United States to Northern Albania where the goods were then smuggled over the border into Kosovo. “We were approached by fundamentalist Muslims from every direction – Al Qaeda – but most of the leaders of the KLA just didn’t feel right about working with them,” he said to Dutch filmmaker Klaartje Quirijns in the documentary film The Brooklyn Connection. “I would have cooperated with the devil to free my country. I didn’t care who they were.” Later, he said he realized the KLA commanders were right to turn down help from Islamist extremists

And it’s a good thing they did, or Kosovo’s Islamist problem might be much more severe than it is.

Downtown Prizren, Kosovo

The KLA may have refused entry into Kosovo to radical groups from the Middle East during the war, but that hasn’t stopped dubious characters from the Gulf states from showing up in Kosovo anyway since the war ended. Saudi-funded NGOs volunteered to help rebuild mosques destroyed by the Yugoslav Army and Serbian nationalist paramilitary forces, which is fine and good as far as it goes, but there’s a catch. The same individuals hope to transform Kosovo’s liberal Balkan Islam into the much sterner Wahhabi variety practiced in the harsh deserts of Saudi Arabia.

“We don't call them Wahhabis here,” a prominent Albanian woman told me. “We call them Binladensa, the people of Bin Laden.” Believe me, in Kosovo that isn’t a compliment.

I’m accustomed to spending quality time in moderate Islamic environments. I lived in the most liberal and cosmopolitan Sunni neighborhood in Beirut next to the American University, and I’ve vacationed with my wife in famously moderate Muslim countries like Tunisia and Turkey. Kosovo surprised even me and forced me to redefine my very conception of what a moderate Muslim even is. Kosovo is so thoroughly modern and secularized that if it weren’t for the mosques on the skyline there would be no visible evidence that Kosovo is a Muslim-majority country at all. Kosovo looks no more religious than France.

At least 99.5 percent of Kosovo’s women dress like women elsewhere in Europe. I saw one or two women wearing hijabs, Islamic headscarves, per day at the most, even in villages. Some days I didn’t see any.

A row of bars and cafes, Prizren, Kosovo

Young Albanian women in the small town of Vitina, Kosovo

Alcohol is widely available. You don’t have to find establishments that cater to tourists (there are no tourists in Kosovo) in order to get a drink like you do in false-moderate Muslim countries like Jordan. There are more bars per block in the capital city Prishtina than anywhere I have ever lived. Supposedly the dating scene in Kosovo is still fairly conservative, but the locals could have fooled me. Young women frequently dress in sexy outfits that show off their bodies. They dance, boozed-up, in clubs the way they do in Manhattan – only somehow, amazingly, with glasses of scotch balanced on top of their heads. Pork is on the menu. Pornography is sold on the streets, even outside the capital. What kind of Muslim country is this?

It’s European.

Erotic literature for sale on the street, Prizren, Kosovo

In Anbar Province, Al Qaeda in Iraq shot people for smoking. They warned local vegetable vendors not to place cucumbers and tomatoes next to each other in markets because it’s “perverse.” (Cucumbers are male while tomatoes are female, or so goes the logic.)

They’d have to machine-gun the entire nation of Kosovo into a mass grave to get their way. Their hatred of the place must surpass even that of the worst Serbian nationalists. Its very existence as a culturally liberal Muslim-majority country threatens to destroy their ideology. Their absolute worst nightmare – and the thing they are ultimately fighting to stop – is the transformation of the Arab world into something resembling Kosovo.

I met an American police officer in the charming provincial city of Prizren. “Muslims here identify themselves as Muslim-lite,” he said, “like Pepsi-lite.”

That’s right. “We are Muslims,” one waiter told me, “but not really.”

Not even the small towns and villages of Kosovo are conservative by Islamic standards. Kosovo is the least Islamicized Muslim-majority country I have ever been to. The only possible exception is Albania. Islamic civilization – if such a dubious thing even exists – is far more varied than it appears from outside, especially in the media which thrives on sensationalism. Prishtina has no more in common culturally with thoroughly Islamicized cities like Cairo and Riyadh than Cairo and Riyadh have with Seattle.


I had coffee at a restaurant called Pishat with Professor Xhabir Hamiti from the Islamic Studies Department at the University of Prishtina. “This is a famous restaurant,” he said. “Madeleine Albright ate here.”

He earned his degrees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

“When were you in Lebanon?” I said. “Before the war?”

“It was in 2002,” he said, “so after. But there were still signs of the civil war. I noticed in Lebanon, Shias and Sunnis, Hezbollah and these kind of parties, they hate each other more than they hate Christians. It’s very bad.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“Hezbollah are idiots,” he said. “They are not Muslims.”

“They say they are,” I said. I can never quite figure out if Muslims who say this kind of thing are in denial about their more sinister co-religionists or if they mean to excommunicate them.

“Their behavior is not Muslim,” he said. “Look to the practices. I hate them.”

“Why is it that Islam in the Balkans is more open and tolerant than in the Middle East?” I said.

“Because our mentality is different, completely different,” he said.

“Is it because you’re European?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Another reason is because we have cultivated tolerance between different religions.”

Billboard celebrating tolerance, Prishtina, Kosovo

“I know there is more tolerance here because I can see it and I can feel it,” I said. “But at the same time, there was a huge war.”

“A huge war, yes,” he said, “but it was not a religious war. In Bosnia we can say that Islam is the only element divides Bosnians from Serbs, because they speak the same language and have approximately the same culture. The faith was the one element that divided Serbs from Bosnians.”

Serbs are by definition Slavs who belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Bosniaks are Muslims – at least by family heritage, if not belief – who are otherwise ethnically identical to Serbs and Croatian Catholics. In Kosovo, it’s different. Kosovo is ethnically divided between Serbs and Albanians. Albanians are then religiously divided between Muslims and Catholics. Muslims are the overwhelming majority, but in Albania itself they only eke out a 70 percent majority, with the remaining third split unevenly between Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

“But here,” Professor Hamiti continued, “we haven’t had anything to do with Serbs and the Slavic language and the Slavic culture. Our culture is different, our language is different and they hate us. They wanted us to leave Kosovo. Since 1800 they tried to force Albanians to go other places. We have places in Serbia that have been inhabited by Albanians – I come from Serbia – many cities have been Albanian. They know that. They forced them to leave that part and come here and were converted to Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries. Since then the Serbs have taken the policy, a very bad policy, that since you have embraced Islam you are Turks, and you should go to Turkey. So for Albanians you can say this is a very important point. Never use religion to fight against Serbs. They didn’t, for example, say lets take guns and fight Serbs in the name of God. Because they also know that they have Albanians who are Orthodox, and we have also Christians and Catholics.”

Albanian culture is radically different from that of the rest of the former Yugoslavia. The wars in Bosnia and Croatia weren’t religious wars either, but they were fought more cleanly along religious lines. Hideous wars of ethnic cleansing were fought by South Slavic Catholics (Croats), Bosniaks (Muslims), and Serbs (Serbian Orthodox Christians) who were otherwise nearly identical culturally, linguistically, and even genetically. Bosnians managed to hold together a multi-confessional alliance between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and Muslim Bosniaks, but the Serbian nationalists and Croatian nationalists didn’t. Albanians, meanwhile, are similarly split between Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians, but fighting wars against each other over this kind of thing is unthinkable. It just does not happen.

Kosovo’s war, then, wasn’t religious. It was ethnic. Christians did not fight Muslims; Serbs fought Albanians. Serbian nationalists ethnically-cleansed Kosovo’s Catholics right along with the Muslims.

Vandalized Serbian Orthodox Church, Prizren, Kosovo

90 percent of all Kosovar Albanians, Catholic and Muslim alike, were displaced from their homes by Milosevic’s armed forces during their ethnic-cleansing campaign. In 1999 they were allowed to return to their homes under NATO protection. Enraged mobs then set to firebombing Serb houses and Serbian Orthodox churches.

Five years later, in 2004, violence exploded in Kosovo once again following rumors that Serbs chased Albanian children into the Ibar River where they drowned. Serb and Albanian gunmen fired shots at each other from their respective sides of the river. Mobs of enraged Albanians burned Serb churches and houses for three days. According to U.N. spokeswoman Isabella Karlowitz, 16 churches and 110 houses were destroyed. Dozens were killed. Hundreds were wounded.

Neither Catholic citizens nor Catholic churches were touched in either of these spasms of violence. The fact that the violence was ethnic rather than religious doesn’t mean it was better, but it does mean it was different from how it is sometimes perceived from abroad.

Inside Catholic church, Prizren, Kosovo. Catholic churches are unguarded in Kosovo because they are threatened by no one.

I saw several Serbian Orthodox churches that were damaged by vandals and arsonists. NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) now has to protect some of the Serb holy sites in potentially volatile areas with barbed wire and even armed guards.

Vandalized and guarded Serbian Orthodox Church, Prizren, Kosovo

A Kosovo government warning to would-be vandals outside a Serbian Orthodox church

Tens of thousands of Serbs have abandoned Kosovo and moved to Serbia. It’s important to note,though, that there is no corresponding migration of Albanian Catholics.

Catholic church tower, Prizren, Kosovo

Catholics are deeply respected in both Kosovo and Albania. The Albanian national hero, Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, was a Catholic who led the anti-Turkish resistance in the 15th Century.

Statue of the great Catholic warrior Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, downtown Prishtina, Kosovo

The twin-headed eagle on the official Albanian flag and the unofficial Kosovo flag bears his seal to this day. Even the name Albania in the local language – Shqipëria, or Land of the Eagles – is thought to have been coined by the great Catholic warrior.

Mother Teresa statue, Prishtina, Kosovo

Kosovo’s second national hero is Mother Teresa. She, too, was an Albanian Catholic, and she took her vows at the Church of the Black Madonna in Eastern Kosovo.

Virgin Mary statue outside the Church of the Black Madonna, Eastern Kosovo

The names of villages in Kosovo are written in both the Albanian and Serbian languages, and all over the country I saw Serbian names blackened out with spray paint.

Serbian language translation is blotted out by spray paint on a village sign

Ethnic relations between Albanians and Serbs are obviously terrible even today. Relations between Kosovo and Serbia are no better.

“The Serbian government and people are still thinking that Kosovo is not an independent state,” Professor Hamiti said. “And they are creating the myths, you know the myths? That Kosovo is like Jerusalem for them. Unfortunately I am afraid that they will continue these myths and in the future, and will try and create problems. They are saying look what you have done, you have created an independent Islamic state.”

“The rest of the world doesn’t know what to think,” I said. “There are no journalists here. If the Serbs say there is a fundamentalist state here, people don’t know, they think it’s true.”

“We are Muslims,” he said, “we cannot deny that, but as you see in the street, it is completely different. Here people are Muslims, but they think like Europeans. You should write about this because people don’t know it.”

“What about the very conservative Muslims coming here from Saudi Arabia and building mosques?” I said. “Do you think this is a problem?”

I think it’s a problem. It is even a problem in the United States.

Ottoman-era mosque, Prizren, Kosovo

Rebuilt mosque, Vitina, Kosovo

“Yes,” he said. “It is a problem in my opinion. But, as you know, during the war we had 250 mosques destroyed and burned. The Serbs wanted to call this war a religious war to get sympathy from Europeans. They still do that. After the war many humanitarian organizations came here, in general from the Gulf – Kuwait, Qatar, others. We haven’t had rules, we haven’t had a government. All things have been under the U.N., so they opened the door to these kind of organizations. They operated legally. We couldn’t have control. Why? Because they have the money. And that is why we have not been in the position to stop these kind of steps. They say We have money. We can help you build a mosque, and we will make the architecture. And they have also misused their position toward us. This was in the beginning, after the war. Now it is a better situation, because now they cannot do anything they want.”

“Who stopped them?” I said.

“There have been moments when the U.S. and the international community have made pressure on them,” he said.

“The involvement of Wahhabis causes concerns in the U.S.,” I said. “Do they control what is said inside the mosques?”

“In some mosques, yes,” he said.

“How do they do that?” I said. “Money?”

“Yes,” he said. “They are from outside, and I am convinced that neither here or in Albanian churches will Albanians allow them to continue. We are working very hard to stop these kinds of movements. These kinds of movements are dangerous for all nations, for the faiths, for all religions. The traditional Islam that has been cultivated in these areas is the best guarantee for the future. If we allow foreigners to come here and to push us to war with their ideas, then the situation will be out of our control. We should take the Islamic situation in our hands. We are Europeans. We are Muslims, but we think the European way. We are aware that we are the border of Serbia which is Orthodox, with Catholics, with Sufis and others, and we should continue to cultivate tolerance with different religions. And we need the support of all the institutions who are against the conservative Muslims.

“I am a Muslim,” he continued, “I am a scholar, I know how to deal with Islam in my country. There is no need for Arabs to come here. I have no need for their suggestions, no need for their explanations. Our policy should be open, for all countries. They are Muslims, we are not against them, but we are against the way they are using Islam in my country. We have our own schools, this is not new here. They have been here for 600 years. We created our Islam ourselves here, and we can continue our Islam with our own minds. If they want to support us, they should support the faculty. Support me as a scholar, not create their own schools, their own mosques. Because that makes trouble.”


I understood already why the KLA told the mujahideen, the radical Arab Islamists, to stay out during the war, but I wanted to hear a local person explain it from his or her perspective.

“The KLA,” I said. “Why did they say no to the mujahideen?

“In Bosnia,” he said, “the mujahideen called the war a holy war, and they wanted to call the war here a holy war. But it was not a holy war, it was a war against the Serbian regime and paramilitary forces. So to prevent this we told them No. You can’t have an attitude like that. You can send money to buy guns, but you cannot be with us in the war. That was a good idea. They destroy everything they touch.”

We both said “Chechnya” at the same time.

“So people in Kosova,” I said, “thought fighting the right kind of war was more important than winning? Or did you expect NATO to intervene so the mujahideen were not necessary? What was the exact thought process?”

“The KLA commanders needed to fight the mujahideen mentality,” he said. “The mujahideen would go through the KLA but create another team. There would be a team who fights in the name of God and a team who fights in the name of nationalism. So in order to prevent this kind of problem, they were told no from the beginning. If you want to help us with guns against the Serbian regime, you can help.”

Helping the Kosovar Albanians against the Milosevic regime earned the United States a heck of a lot more friends in Kosovo than any offers of help from Islamists did. Nevertheless, Professor Hamiti is well aware that large majorities in many, if not most, Muslim countries remain anti-American. Huge numbers believe Americans are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan because they hate Muslims. This belief, of course, requires a person to be completely oblivious to what happened in Kosovo.

“You know that's not true,” I said. “We’re not against Muslims.”

“I know,” he said. “I saw it with my own eyes in the U.S. Religion is very free, everybody is free to do whatever he wants, to worship the god he wants. I saw it with my own eyes.”

“What do you think about Iraq?” I said. “You and Kosovo in general?”

“The Muslims here are on the side of the Americans,” he said. “They had to stop this kind of dictatorships in the Middle East. [Saddam Hussein] killed many innocent people, and he was going to continue his wars against his neighbors. That was a good step, to remove him from his position. But the pictures that we see on the TV are bad pictures, for us, and I think also for Americans. Who wants to see American soldiers die in Iraq? Or who wants to see innocent people, women, children, old people, die? I think there is going to be a solution. But they cannot leave, they cannot leave. Shias and Sunnis hate each other more than they hate Americans.”


Professor Hamiti wasn’t the only person I talked to about the so-called Binladensa. Two prominent Kosovar Albanian women agreed to talk to me as long as I would not quote them by name. Both work in official and diplomatic circles. Nothing they said is particularly controversial, but their opinions don’t necessarily represent the institutions they work for. I'll refer to them here by the female Albanian names Fana and Lumnije, which are pseudonyms.

The three of us had coffee at an outdoor restaurant in a wooded part of the countryside near a small river.

Southeastern Kosovo

“How successful are the Wahhabis here?” I said.

“They are successful in rebuilding mosques,” Fana said, “and they pay people to get covered, to shorten the pants.”

Conservative Arab women wear headscarves – or even veils or enveloping abayas – while Wahhabi men wear short pants that ride high above their ankles. I saw an average of one or two Albanian women each day wearing a headscarf, but I never noticed even a single man anywhere in Kosovo wearing Wahhabi pants. There can’t be all that many around.

“They pay people to dress differently?” I said. I heard this from all sorts of people in Kosovo and have no way to verify whether it's true or not. Either way, it seems to be a mainstream belief among Albanians. I also heard rumors that Hezbollah once paid women in Shia villages of Lebanon one hundred dollars a month to wear headscarves until they gave it up as both expensive and futile. Genuinely conservative women will wear them without needing baksheesh from Hezbollah, while liberated women are hard to bribe. Lebanon's relatively modern “dress code” among bourgeois Muslim women was hard won and will not be rolled back so easily.

“I have heard about it,” Fana said. “I don’t know for sure. Most likely true, they have money. Gulf money, not just from Iran. But Albanians are very traditional, so it is difficult to get them to change their traditions. It is difficult for the Wahhabis to get roots here in Kosovo.”

Ottoman fountain and courtyard, Prizren, Kosovo

“You should see how the general public receives these people,” Lumnije said. “They certainly are not liked. I don’t think they will succeed.”

“I see an occasional person who I can tell is from one of these mosques,” I said, “but I don’t see very many.”

“They are only in certain places,” Fana said. “I don’t even see them around much. And now they have this new mosque in the city center and they are gathering there. They destroyed the old mosque and built a new one five years ago.”

“Actually,” Lumnije said, “the old mosque was damaged by an earthquake.”

“Just damaged,” Fana said.

“They could have restored it,” Lumnije said. “It was an Ottoman mosque, very old.”

“Did they knock it down?” I said.

“Yes, completely,” Fana said. “The walls were one meter thick stone. All that was destroyed was the roof, and they could have renovated it.”

I wanted to know what Albanians were doing to curtail the influences of these people so Kosovo really doesn't become what its critics fear it is turning into.

“It is a bit tricky, Michael,” Lumnije said, “because in the Kosovo constitution all European standards are applicable. And if you look at it from the point of view of European conventions and human rights, they have a right to religion. Yesterday we had a case where a young girl was denied entrance to a school because she was covered. As human rights officers, it is a problem we have to deal with because she has a right to preserve her religion. That is her choice.”

“We don’t have a law that says she can or can’t come to school,” Fana said to Lumnije. “It is European law, but we have no law.”

“Yes,” Lumnije said, “but these are very tricky cases in Europe also. In France it was a big problem. I attended summer school in 2003 in England, in South Wales. We had one international night, and I was shocked to find that the representative of the USA was a covered lady, originally from Iraq. And the representative from Canada was another, originally from Afghanistan. The topic for the conference was Young people changing the world. It had nothing to do with religion, but they were representing the U.S. and Canada.”

“That is surprising,” I said, “but very American.”

“And Lumnije, coming from a Muslim country, was wearing shorts!” Fana said.

All three of us laughed.

“They were arguing with me all the time,” Lumnije said. “What kind of a Muslim woman are you?

Young Albanian women, Prizren, Kosovo

I can understand why the women from Iraq and Afghanistan argued with Lumnije, even though, frankly, they were being reactionary. Albanian Islam is so different from Islam in Iraq and – especially – Afghanistan, that it must have been truly shocking when conservative women from those countries met a thoroughly Western-looking and Western-thinking woman who claimed to adhere to the same religion. Kosovo surprised even me, and I'm accustomed to spending time in relatively secularized Muslim countries.

“How many Wahhabis are here?” I said, meaning the medium-sized city they lived in. We were not in the capital.

“Here?” Fana said. “Maybe 100. Maybe 50.”

“Are they dangerous?” I said.

“No,” she said. “They don’t do anything.”

“I will tell you one thing,” Lumnije said. “The problem is that this issue has not been raised, except for when they talk about the mosques. I haven’t noticed any journalists tackle this thing. I am sure this issue will soon arise, but until the 17th of February everybody was obsessed with the independence issue. Now I am sure it will come up. What happened yesterday at the school, when one covered girl was not allowed to enter, I am sure this case will come up and they will start to deal with it. I hope that they will deal with it at some essential level, regulating it by law. In OSCE, for example, there is one girl who is covered, but she is a professional interpreter, very well-educated. At one point the Kosovar delegation went to Germany and they hired an interpreter and she was supposed to go. When they saw that she was covered they refused to take her.”

“The Kosovars refused to take a covered woman to Germany as a professional interpreter,” Fana said, “and the U.S. sends a covered Iraqi woman to Wales as a representative!” She laughed out loud at the irony.

“They didn’t want Kosovo to be perceived as a conservative Muslim country,” Lumnije said.

“And I definitely think they were right,” Fana said.


Don't misunderstand what these women are saying. The Kosovars who refused to take a covered woman to Germany were not trying to deceive the Germans. Hardly any women in Kosovo dress like that. The number I saw was only a fraction of one percent. Sending a woman abroad to represent Kosovo while wearing a headscarf – that would be deceptive, or at least misleading. I went entire days in Kosovo without seeing a single woman wearing one of those things. It makes sense for Kosovo’s women to be represented abroad by someone who looks like them.

“Most people know nothing about your country,” I said to Fana and Lumnije.

"The majority of us would not like to be perceived as a Muslim country in the real sense of the word," Lumnije said. "Because we are different. Even geographically we are European.”

“We are not European,” Fana said and laughed, “we are American! We are the 51st state!”

“Kosovo is the most reliable,” Lumnije said.

“It is a small country,” Fana said, “but you can rely on us completely.”


I’m not particularly worried that Kosovo will become a jihad state like Iran, or a jihad statelet like the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan and the Hezbollah-controlled portions of Lebanon. Anything is possible, but it’s pretty unlikely. There are too many anti-Islamist antibodies in the society.

“We've been here for so long,” United States Army Sergeant Zachary Gore said to me in Eastern Kosovo, “and not seen any evidence of it, that we’ve reached the assumption that it is not a viable threat.” I trust American soldiers when it comes to the assessment of threats. I have seen them at work in Iraq, and they are less complacent about dangerous Islamists than any other people I have ever met.

“I don’t think Kosovo will ever follow the path of the Middle East,” entrepreneur Luan Berisha told me. “I sincerely believe it. We as Muslims were never fundamentalists in any kind of aspect. All of my family has been Muslims for over 300 years. We were never practicing Muslims like they are in the Middle East. We are quite open, quite liberal in that respect. The biggest proof of that is within Albania we have Catholics, we have Orthodox, and we have Muslims. First of all we are Albanians. Religion comes second to us. It is not like the countries in the Middle East where the religion comes first. To us, religion comes second. First of all is to create a better life for us.”

Kosovo is hardly more religious than anywhere else in Europe, but Albania itself is perhaps the least religious of all. Before the thoroughly oppressive atheist-communist state run by Enver Hoxha during the Cold War, around 30 percent of Albanians were Christians while 70 percent were Muslims. Now hardly anyone belongs to any religion. Every mosque but one in the entire country was physically demolished by the deranged totalitarian state.

“For 50 years Albania was under a horrible dictatorship,” Berisha said. “For the 50 years they were under Enver Hoxha nobody dared to practice any religion. There was no god for them. There was only Hoxha. For 50 years it was very bad. Bosnia has suffered a lot, but what Albanians have suffered is unbelievable. Nobody can even explain it to themselves, honestly. Really, he brainwashed them away from religion. People don’t believe in anything. As soon as you don’t believe in anything, you have a problem with everything. You don’t even know where to start. And now they are slowly starting to come back into beliefs. It took them 18 years, but a lot of people are changing, and actually quite a few Muslims are no longer calling themselves Muslim, but are saying I am Christian. Which is fine because they don’t know what Islam even is. They never touched it. They never went to a mosque.”

Albania and Kosovo aren’t the only countries in the Balkan Peninsula where ethnic Albanians live. They also inhabit a portion of southeastern Montenegro near the Albanian border. Their little region on the coast is beautiful, prosperous, and appears to be more thoroughly Europeanized even than Kosovo.

Ethnic Albanians also live in Macedonia near the Albanian border, and their region of that country is very troubled indeed. I traveled there to meet with some Albanian Sufis who are under attack by radical Sunnis. For a host of complex reasons which I will explain in the next chapter, the Binladensa of the Balkans in Macedonia are successfully Islamicizing, and even Arabizing, parts of the country.

To be continued…

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:58 AM | Comments (31)

July 19, 2008

Triangulation, Lebanon Style

In yesterday’s piece I said Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora’s and Druze chief Walid Jumblatt’s pretended support for the released terrorist Samir Kuntar was an act of triangulation. For those interested in how, exactly, that works, and why someone like Jumblatt thinks it’s necessary, Michael Young explains it in detail.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:54 AM | Comments (13)

July 18, 2008

The Truth about March 14

The “March 14” movement is a political vehicle for Lebanon’s liberals, democrats, free-market capitalists, human rights activists, and those who want an exit from the seemingly endless war with the “Zionist entity.” Unfortunately, that is not all it is. It’s also a political vehicle for hard-line Sunni Arab Nationalists and other political retrogrades who only oppose Hezbollah and the Syrian Baath regime because they hate Shias and Alawites as much as they hate Jews.

My colleague Noah Pollak is rightly horrified by the death worship on display in Beirut this week after Israel released the child-murdering terrorist ghoul Samir Kuntar to Hezbollah in exchange for the dead bodies of two kidnapped soldiers. “Lebanon’s March 14th movement cast itself into an abyss of moral depravity that the bloc’s supporters — myself included — never thought possible,” he wrote. I’m sorry to say this--I’m a March 14 supporter, too--but I’m a bit less surprised, if not less repulsed, by this recent turn of events.

Such March 14 stalwarts as Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt participated in the gruesome festivities and gave Kuntar--who smashed in the head of a four year-old girl on a rock after murdering her father in front of her--a warm hero’s welcome.

I don’t know if Seniora and Jumblatt sincerely believe Kuntar is a hero for those deeds. Frankly, I doubt it. He won’t be joining the March 14 movement. There is no question that he belongs to the “March 8” bloc led by Hezbollah, and that he will be perfectly willing to murder the children of the “wrong” kind of Lebanese when civil and sectarian violence explodes in his country again.

But Seniora and Jumblatt feel they have to triangulate, so to speak, and publicly throw their support behind a man who is their enemy because he is also Israel’s enemy. Anti-Zionism trumps everything, even in Lebanon where the violent Jew-hatred endemic to the modern Middle East is weaker than it is most other places.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 9:34 AM | Comments (29)

July 17, 2008

Is the War Over?

(Note: I wrote a brief post on this topic a few days ago. This is an excerpt from a longer piece for COMMENTARY.)

Independent reporter Michael Yon has spent more time in Iraq embedded with combat soldiers than any other journalist in the world, and a few days ago he boldly declared the war over:

Barring any major and unexpected developments (like an Israeli air strike on Iran and the retaliations that would follow), a fair-minded person could say with reasonable certainty that the war has ended. A new and better nation is growing legs. What's left is messy politics that likely will be punctuated by low-level violence and the occasional spectacular attack. Yet, the will of the Iraqi people has changed, and the Iraqi military has dramatically improved, so those spectacular attacks are diminishing along with the regular violence. Now it's time to rebuild the country, and create a pluralistic, stable and peaceful Iraq. That will be long, hard work. But by my estimation, the Iraq War is over. We won. Which means the Iraqi people won.

I’m reluctant to say “the war has ended,” as he did, but everything else he wrote is undoubtedly true. The war in Iraq is all but over right now, and it will be officially over if the current trends in violence continue their downward slide. That is a mathematical fact.

If you doubt it, look at the data.

Security incidents, or attacks, are at their lowest level in four years. Civilian deaths are down by almost 90 percent since General Petraeus’ counterinsurgency “surge” strategy went into effect. High profile attacks, or explosions, are down by 80 percent in the same time period. American and Iraqi soldiers suffer far fewer casualties than they have for years. Ethno-sectarian deaths from Iraq’s civil war plunged all the way down to zero in May and June 2008.

Yon is braver than the rest of us for declaring the war over, but it’s important to understand that there are no final battles in counterinsurgencies and it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact dates when wars like this end. The anti-Iraqi insurgency – a war-within-a-war – really is effectively over. As long as another such war-within-a-war doesn’t break out, Yon will appear more perceptive than the rest of us in hindsight when the currently low levels of violence finally do taper off into relative insignificance.

Read the rest in COMMENTARY Magazine.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:16 AM | Comments (27)

July 14, 2008

An Abominable Blood-Logged Plain

“The war in Bosnia will look like a tea party if Serbian nationalism runs wild in Kosovo.” U.S. Representative Eliot Engel

“The whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain.” From Black Lamb and Gray Falcon by Rebecca West, 1941.

Strange country, Kosovo.

It’s European, but it isn’t Christian. It’s majority-Muslim, but it is not anti-American. Foreign soldiers are hailed as liberators and protectors rather than occupiers. Most Western countries recognize the majority-Muslim nation’s recent declaration of independence from Serbia, but not a single Arab country has done so – partly, perhaps, because Israelis as well as Americans are thought of as allies and friends. The United Nations is widely perceived as offensive, incompetent, corrupt, and deserving of banishment.

Ethnic Albanians – who make up 90 percent of Kosovo’s population – suffered apartheid-like conditions and ethnic-cleansing by Serbian Nationalists in the 1990s. They were history’s winners, though, in 1999 when NATO finally had enough of Belgrade’s tyrant Slobodan Milosevic. He and his Serb allies kicked off four wars in the former Yugoslavia, and the final war in Kosovo threatened to overwhelm and destabilize the rest of Southeastern Europe.

Albanians in both Kosovo and Albania proper are well aware that the United States led the international effort to stop the chronic violence in what remained of Yugoslavia, and they’re well aware that the United States led the international effort to roll back communism all over the world. History has been as hard for them in the last half-century as it has been for their Arab co-religionists, but in dramatically different ways, and with dramatically different results.

I spent several weeks among them shortly after their declaration of independence to investigate the world’s newest country. The attacks on September 11, 2001, and the Terror War that followed pushed Europe’s troubled Balkan Peninsula almost entirely off the media map. But Kosovo is a brand-new Muslim-majority nation forged in violence and war with the help of American soldiers. Most countries still have not recognized its independence. Like Israel and Taiwan, its very right to exist is on trial. It deserves more attention than it has been getting.


The capital, Prishtina, is hard to love at first sight. Never before had I seen a European capital so thoroughly degraded by modern and communist architecture. Very little of old Prishtina remains.

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Prishtina, Kosovo

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Old Prishtina, Kosovo

Brutal communist-era monstrosities proliferate across Eastern Europe, but in Prishtina you will find them even in the city center where more aesthetically pleasing traditional buildings should be.

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Kosovo's National Library is a spectacular modernist failure.

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Rumor has it that a communist apparatchik attended the building's opening and asked why the scaffolding hadn't been taken down yet.

Newer construction is a bit softer on the eyes, as it is almost everywhere in the world, but there is no urban planning and no formal or informal design code. Houses, apartment buildings, and office towers are often built illegally, without permits, wherever they happen to fit.

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New neighborhood, Prishtina, Kosovo

Property taxes on homes don't kick in until construction is completed, so unfinished houses are literally everywhere. Prishtina at first glance is a jarring assault on the senses, and a devastating rebuke to both communist and modernist architecture.

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It wouldn't be fair, though, to judge Kosovars on their built environment. The average person who lives in Prishtina is no more responsible for its botched condition than people who live anywhere else – and that was doubly true when Kosovo was ruled by a communist dictatorship that was foreign in all but name. The only European country I’ve seen with as much obvious physical evidence of decades of oppression and misrule is Albania.

The city of Prizren provides an interesting contrast.

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Here is a city that still looks more or less like it did before the arrival of communists with their bulldozers, their clipboards, and their blueprints. Prizren looks, as Prishtina once did, like the Eastern-Western hybrid that it is. It looks vaguely Turkish, specifically Kosovar, and thoroughly European. This is a city you'll want to visit if you go there on holiday.

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Hardly any tourists visit Kosovo, even though much of it is charming and the prices are lowest in Europe. It is off almost everyone's radar. Most who think of Kosovo at all still assume it is hostile or dangerous. It is neither. Two short years before the ill-fated date of September 11, 2001, Kosovo still resembled the “blood-logged plain” Rebecca West famously described in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, her famous pre-World War II travelogue about her journey across Yugoslavia.

Kosovo today reminded me of other countries that were blood-logged until recently. In 2003, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman belatedly discovered Poland. “After two years of traveling almost exclusively to Western Europe and the Middle East,” he wrote, “Poland feels like a geopolitical spa. I visited here for just three days and got two years of anti-American bruises massaged out of me.” That's exactly how I felt when I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan, and that's exactly how I felt when I arrived in Kosovo.

American flags fly in front of private homes, private businesses, and public buildings.

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They are sold at sidewalk kiosks all over the country, along with t-shirts thanking the United States in English. I saw spray-painted graffiti on a wall in a village that said “Thanks USA and Bush.”

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President George W. Bush is deeply admired in both Kosovo and Albania, but no U.S. president tops Bill Clinton in the public affection department. A main street leading into Prishtina’s downtown was renamed Bill Clinton Boulevard. An enormous mural of the former president greets visitors on their way into the capital from the airport. Small businesses are named after him, too.

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A small business named after former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Prishtina, Kosovo

Vizier Mustafa is sculpting a statue of Clinton which will soon be erected somewhere on Bill Clinton Boulevard. “He is our savior,” Mustafa told a Reuters reporter. “He saved us from extermination.”

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Vizier Mustafa sculpting a statue of former U.S. President Bill Clinton (copyright Reuters)

The Hotel Victory sports the world's second largest replica of the Statue of Liberty on its roof. A taxi company named Victory put the Statue of Liberty on its doors. I found another replica on someone's private property in the small ethnically mixed town of Vitina.

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“We are more pro-American than you are,” one young Kosovar told me.

“We really like Americans here,” a waiter said when he learned where I’m from. “Americans are our best friends in the world. UK is second.”

“Thank you,” I said. “We appreciate that. Some people don’t like us.”

“Bad people,” he said.

Restaurants abound with American names: Memphis, Hemingway, Route 66. I even found a patisserie and disco bar named Hillary, after Hillary Clinton.

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I stood in front of “Hillary” and snapped a couple of pictures. A man rose from an outdoor table and said something to me in Albanian.

“Do you speak English?” I said.

“I asked you why you are taking pictures of my café,” he said. He sounded slightly annoyed and suspicious, but only slightly.

“I'm American,” I said. “And I like your sign.”

“You are from USA?” he said. “Please come in!”

I walked up the stairs and stepped inside.

“Look,” he said. “This is even better.” And he showed me enormous pictures of both Bill and Hillary Clinton on the wall.

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“What is your name?” he said.

“Michael,” I said.

“I am Ilir,” he said. “Ilir Durmishi. It is Christian name.”

“Ah,” I said. “So you're Christian.”

“No,” he said. “I am Muslim. My father just wanted me to have a Christian name.”

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Ilir Durmishi, owner of the “Hillary” patisserie and disco bar, Prishtina, Kosovo

He gave me two shots of espresso and a cigarette. We talked about American politics.

“Do you think Hillary will win?” he said. This was shortly before she lost the Democratic Party's primary nomination to Barack Obama.

“It’s possible,” I said, although I doubted she would.

“I think she will win,” he said. “I like Hillary, but I love Bill. He is my guy. You understand why?”

“Of course,” I said. And I did. His country wouldn’t exist if it were not for Bill Clinton.

“Kosova good?” he said.

“Kosova good,” I said.

“Serbia?” he said.

What was I supposed to say? I didn't want to say “Serbia good” and offend him, nor did I want to condemn an entire country just to appease him. I split the difference and made a so-so motion with my hand while bracing myself for what he might say.

“There are good people and bad people in Serbia,” he said. I relaxed. He was reasonable. “Maybe the leadership is bad, but some Serbs are good. I have Serb friends here. They like to come and have coffee in my cafe.”

After we chatted for a few more minutes, I fished into my pocket for some money to pay for the coffee.

“No,” he said.” It is from house. God bless you.”

Later I had coffee with a young Albanian man just around the corner from Ilir's Hillary Clinton cafe.

“Kosovo is a success because we wanted a change,” he said. “We are not like Iraqis or Palestinians who don’t want change and seem to enjoy living in poverty. Here everyone is thinking about progress and the future.”

The past, though, is always present in Kosovo. Events leading up to the bitter separation from Serbia aren't discussed all that often, but it's impossible to think about Kosovo's independence without recalling the blood-logged events that led to it.


When the future of Yugoslavia looked dim and precarious, Slobodan Milosevic looked for a way to rise in power and keep it. He found one when he transformed himself from a communist apparatchik to a Serbian Nationalist. In 1989 he visited the Field of Blackbirds near Kosovo Polje where medieval Serbian ruler Tsar Lazar was defeated by the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1389.

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The Battle at Kosovo Polje, 1389

“No one has the right to beat you,” he said to an enormous crowd of budding Serbian Nationalists. “No one will ever beat you again.”

Milosevic, instead, beat ethnic Albanians – who make up the overwhelming majority of Kosovo's population – once his power in Belgrade was secured.

Slobodan Milosevic

First he summarily revoked Kosovo's political autonomy and purged thousands of Albanians from their jobs in Kosovo's government sector – an enormous sector in a communist system – for no other reason than because they were not Serbs. He replaced their police with his own. As Yugoslavia came apart in Bosnia, Slovenia, and Croatia, Albanians formed their own parallel institutions and civil society entirely apart from Milosevic's oppressive regime. Ibrahim Rugova, the literary academic and pacifist, became the widely respected leader of this parallel state and presided over a movement committed to non-violent civil resistance.

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Ibrahim Rugova, literary academic, pacifist, and Kosovo's first president. He is considered by many to be the Father of the Nation.

Milosevic ramped up the oppression, though, and sent tanks into Kosovo. Massacres and brutality predictably followed. Rugova’s steadfast insistence on a pacifist response led to his temporary marginalization and the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrilla movement.

Thousands were murdered, raped, ethnically-cleansed, tortured, and “disappeared.” Neither side was angelic in this fight. There are no innocents in the Balkans. Milosevic, though, had the Yugoslav Army at his disposal, and well-trained and well-armed Serb paramilitary fighters that sometimes called themselves Chetniks. The KLA had a small number of angry and badly-trained men with meager equipment.

Pictures of the missing are still on display in central Prishtina. I swallowed hard while remembering scenes just like this one in New York City just after Al Qaeda’s violent assault on Lower Manhattan. It is extremely unlikely that any of these people are still alive.

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Full-blown war broke out in 1999 between NATO and the largely ineffective KLA on one side, and the remnants of the Yugoslav Army and Serb paramilitaries on the other. Milosevic’s forces were eventually driven from Kosovo, NATO and Russian forces moved in on the ground, and the KLA was disbanded. Rugova was elected the first president of a de-facto independent Kosovo once institutionalized pacifism was a safe and viable option again.

I interviewed entrepreneur Luan Berisha who experienced all this as a civilian. My friend and traveling companion Sean LaFreniere joined me. Sean and I visited Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, and Montenegro together before he headed home and I settled in for a longer stay in Kosovo.

Before we had a chance to cover the war, Luan Berisha wanted to get a few things out of the way.

“Listen,” he said. “All Albanians, all Kosovars, they feel more close in all ways to the West that to the Arab world. Why? Because still none of the Arab League countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence. The reason why is because Libya and many other countries are linked with Serbia. Israel would have recognized us by now, but politically they can’t. If they do, we are automatically doomed for another 59 countries not to recognize us. I think very highly of Israel. I like Jewish people a lot.”

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Luan Berisha (Photo copyright Sean LaFreniere)

I knew before I traveled to Kosovo that Albanians think highly of Jews and of Israel, but I was frankly surprised by how often it came up in conversation. Albanians differ radically from Arabs in almost every cultural and political respect you can think of, but nothing, I think, separates the two more than this.

“We have very much in common with Israel,” he said. “In Albania and Kosovo we are in support of Israel. I would never side with the Muslim side to wipe Israel off the face of the world. 90% of Kosovo feels this way. The reason why is we sympathize a lot with the people who have suffered the same fate as us. We were Muslims even in the Second World War – stronger Muslims than we are now – but even then we protected them with our lives. Our grandfathers protected the Jews wherever they were in the region.”

A large percentage of Kosovars are atheists and agnostics, but Berisha described himself as a Muslim – not as a nominal Muslim by family heritage only, but as a practicing Muslim who prays and visits the mosque. Yet he took us to one of Prishtina’s finest restaurants and ordered bottles of red wine for the three of us to share. He drank more alcohol than Sean and I did.

“What was the war like in 1999?” I said. “We watched it on TV.

“The situation became more dangerous,” Berisha said, “because the Serbs became more aggressive. They used more ruthless methods.”

They certainly did. 90 percent of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo were displaced, or “cleansed.” Almost half were driven out of the country entirely. These people would never have been able to return to their homes if it weren't for the U.S. and NATO. That was the point of driving them out in the first place. Milosevic did to Kosovo what Hamas would do to Israel if Palestinians had the military power to do so.

“I sent food support and other needed supplies to the population affected by the war.,” Berisha said “That means I had the opportunity to visit the areas directly affected. War zones. In Prishtina, it was normal. The lights were on. Normal in the sense that we had gotten used to being beaten by Serb police and to being offended for the last 10 years. It was daily common life, it was nothing new. But in the countryside they were having very bad experiences. I saw dead bodies on the road.”

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Village, Eastern Kosovo

Hardly anyone in Kosovo rode out the war without incident, including Berisha.

“I was with my parents,” he said, “my whole family. Fifteen of us were sent to a train station at gunpoint.”

“This actually happened to you?” I said. “In 1999?”

“Yes,” he said, “in 1999. We were expelled from Prishtina, central Prishtina. Old town. The Serbs came to my house. For thirteen days I lived in my own home. It was a close neighborhood, and we had to open walls that separated the houses, so in case the Serbs came we could run through the walls from house to house. Now, after thirteen days, on the fourteenth day, a Serb neighbor came to my house and he said Luan, call your dad. I called my dad. My Serb neighbor said For your well-being, as your neighbor, I am advising you to take minimal belongings and leave. Because tomorrow they will come and kill everybody they find here..”

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Prishtina, Kosovo

It's worth underscoring the fact that Berisha's Serb neighbor intervened on his family's behalf. Not everyone who gets caught up in violent conflicts like these behaves badly. Not in the Middle East, and not in the Balkans.

I later met an Albanian man who ran into the burning house of his Serb neighbors and saved the lives of two people, at great risk to his own, during retaliatory attacks by an enraged Albanian mob. “Did you see your Serb neighbors again after you saved them?” I said. “Yes,” he said. “What did they say?” I said. “They said thank you.”

Sometimes I have a hard time understanding why I’m drawn to places like Kosovo and Iraq where human beings treat each other with such savagery. I might not be able to do it if it weren’t for the stories of decency and heroism that I also uncover. Often I go back to the words of Philip Gourevitch in his book about Rwanda that bears one of the most disturbing titles I have ever read. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families “Like Leontius,” he wrote, “the young Athenian in Plato, I presume that you are reading this because you desire a closer look, and that you, too, are properly disturbed by your curiosity. Perhaps, in examining this extremity with me, you hope for some understanding, some insight, some flicker of self-knowledge – a moral, or a lesson, or a clue about how to behave in this world.” Perhaps it’s just a conceit on my part – or maybe projection – but I like to believe books like his help prevent societies from becoming future subjects of books with titles like that one. Maybe, though, that isn’t right. Berisha himself gave me evidence to the contrary just a few moments later.

“We had no option,” he said. “We took only the clothes we had on. My father could only walk a few meters at a time because of his heart problem. He had had an operation in Belgrade the year before and could not walk. I had my cousin suffering from drug withdrawal. It was a mess. We had to leave. The whole neighborhood, about 200 of us, we went to the end of our neighborhood, and there were seven Serb soldiers with their rifles cocked. With just a click they could shoot us. They took everything of value from us. Jewelry, money, anything of worth. Then they said Get the fuck out to the train station. There were rumors that the Prishtina football stadium was filled with Albanian citizens. We were scared of that. We reached the train station. There were about 15,000-20,000 people on the field by the station. The train was there. We had seen Schindler’s List. Everything comes into your mind, you know? Then we got into the train. Getting on the train was hell. It was a fight for survival. We had elderly, we had sick, we had kids. You don’t know if your sister is going to be left, if your father is going to make it. You don’t know what is going to happen.

“Anyhow, we got into the train. At the time, we did not know where the train was going. A lot of rumors as we got into the train. I got into the last wagon of the train with my family, and with the rest of the neighbors who had gotten out. The train started, it stopped. We got out of the train. The last wagon, they take everybody out. They said whoever they take out they are going to kill. And it was our wagon. When we got out of the train, my family, our neighbors, normally they would take the young girls and separate, they would take the males and separate, and they would leave the elderly or kill them. When I stood out, I found Serbian paramilitary forces. Chetniks. Not with beards, but Chetniks, with Serbian flags and God knows what, like idiots. Criminals. In between them was an Albanian guy talking with the Serbs and telling them who is good and who is bad. That guy is choosing who they are going to kill. And they take people out.

“I was scared they were going to take a member of my family. My sister. If they had taken my sister it would have been good to kill her. But they wouldn’t kill her, they would rape her, they would...God knows. We went out, they took us to another wagon. They stopped again in another city and, again, the military police entered the train wagon and took people out. I don’t even want to tell you what happened to them. When we reached the border with Macedonia, we got out of the train. The Serb police and paramilitaries were saying to people don’t go off the fucking tracks because everything is mined. Now you have kids, elderly, they were fucked up, they were not hearing it.”

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Albanian children, Prishtina, Kosovo

“Why Macedonia?” Sean said.

“They didn’t care where,” Berisha said. “They expelled 800,000 Albanians in 3 months. When we reached no-man’s-land, there were about 100,000 people living in the open in cold weather. Pregnant women were delivering. People were dying. The refugees were very ill-treated by the Macedonians. I was there three days. And now I think it is not human to screw up this bad. Believe me, at that time, when you watched Schindler’s List, you sympathize with the Jews. But without going through that situation yourself, it is impossible. Now when I watch Schindler’s List, goose bumps go all over my body. Before that, it never happened because we had never suffered like the Jewish people, thanks God. But it was the same process. Mentally, it destroyed us. We suffered a lot. If we had the chance then, we would have killed them. But after that... Are we killing Serbs anymore? No, Serbs are living here. We are not slaughtering anybody. We are not on a witch hunt anymore.”

He mentioned Schindler's List. He and his family saw the movie before they were loaded onto trains during an ethnic-cleansing campaign in Europe. What Milosevic did to Albanians was less severe than Hitler's industrial-scale extermination of human beings at death camps like Auschwitz, but I recall seeing the movie myself and feeling relieved that nothing remotely like that happens in Europe anymore. It seemed appropriate, at the time, that Steven Spielberg shot the film mostly in black and white. The dramatized events took place long ago, after all. Mass ethnic warfare was supposed to be a thing of the past. At least in Europe. But it wasn’t, and maybe it still isn’t.

“In one city,” Berisha continued, “they took a family and put them in the basement. The soldiers went and pissed on them. When they left they threw grenades on them. It killed them all except for one kid who survived. This is what I can never explain to myself, and I cannot justify, what human beings can do. Even beaten, on drugs, you cannot do that. I don’t know how it is to experience killing children. For nothing. Why? Because they are Bosnians, because they are Albanians, because they are Serbs. Because they are bloody Croatians! As I said, it is difficult to forget about it. The more you think about it, the more you get different thoughts in your head. So it is best, right now, we ignore that, and try to move forward, and hopefully, in a better life, we will really forgive one hundred percent. We forgave them for what they have done in a sense, but not truly from our hearts. Because they have never accepted it, what they have done. To this day they say that we are the villains, that we are the monkeys with tails. Today.”

He visits Belgrade once in a while. One night, he said, he went out drinking with Serbs who didn’t know he was Albanian. He kept his identity secret for hours. Eventually, he said, a well-known writer dredged up the hoary old notion that Albanians live in trees and have tails. Berisha could no longer resist, so he told them.

“Then I stood up from my chair,” he said, “and said I am sorry, I cannot sit in this chair any longer. They said Why. I said There is no hole for my tail! Then they started laughing. As much as I was offended by this, I was very happy for them to see that, for fuck's sake, you guys, you have been burned with propaganda. You live 400 kilometers away, and you know nothing about us. You jackholes.”

I spoke to several Albanians who traveled to Serbia recently, and the worst they encountered was rudeness. According to Albanians, it's the same for Serbs who travel to Kosovo.

“Let Serbs come to Prishtina from Belgrade,” Berisha said, “with BG license plates on their cars. Let them come. Nothing will happen. People may not like them, but nothing will happen to them, because 2004 cost us a lot. It cost Kosovo our earlier independence and recognition by the UN. We had to wait another 4 years.”

He is referring to the explosion of violence in 2004 following rumors that Serbs chased Albanian children into the Ibar River where they drowned. Serb and Albanian gunmen fired shots at each other from their respective sides of the river. Mobs of enraged Albanians burned Serb churches and houses for three days. According to U.N. spokeswoman Isabella Karlowitz, 16 churches and 110 houses were destroyed. Dozens were killed. Hundreds were wounded. Kosovo was hardly in a position to declare independence after all that.

“Was the international community worried you would do something crazy?” I said. “Mistreat Serbs?”

“Indeed,” he said. “If you ask anyone about 2004, they will say what a fucking mistake. It screwed us up.”

Kosovo has been de-facto independent from Serbia since the war ended, but even now the country is not fully sovereign. The United Nations administers much of the country, and NATO's Kosovo Force (KFOR) provides most of the security and is the closest thing Kosovo has to a real army.

American military officers believe the war will start up again if KFOR were to withdraw its soldiers. I didn't meet a single person who believes otherwise. Serbs think so, Albanians think so, and Americans think so. It would be naïve and foolhardy to believe soldiers can be withdrawn from a war zone just because the fighting has stopped. Sometimes that's possible, but that's rarely true shortly after an ethnic war.

“The most important thing is for KFOR to be in Kosovo,” Berisha said, as did so many others. “KFOR is the ultimate thing that has to be here.”

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American soldiers, Vitina, Kosovo

“What do you think would happen if KFOR left?” I said.

“A big war,” he said. “Definitely.”

“With Serbia?” Sean said.

“With Serbia,” Berisha said.

“Not just with the Serbs in Kosovo,” I said, “but with Belgrade?”

“With all of Serbia,” he said.

When I briefly visited Bosnia I was told by a long-time resident British consultant that the U.N. and NATO have scaled back their presence dramatically during the past couple of years. Bosnia is troubled, politically deadlocked, and has an uncertain future, but I didn't get the sense that international soldiers are required to prevent an apocalyptic disintegration. Kosovo isn't like that. Not yet.

The war in Bosnia was much more destructive and violent than Kosovo's, but only because NATO intervened seriously in Kosovo after impotently dithering in Bosnia for many years. Serbian Nationalists always wanted Kosovo more than they wanted “cleansed” land in Bosnia. Kosovo is tranquil today for the most part, but that could change if the perfect storm of bad decisions were made. It's hard to imagine Kosovo exploding worse than Bosnia did, but many people who live there or have spent more time there than me think it could happen, at least theoretically, and are determined to ensure it doesn't.

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Destroyed house, Prishtina, Kosovo

“If you go to Krusha e Vogel in Kosova," Berisha said, "you will find most of the households without males. You find most of the women, if not old, raped. That means some of them were pregnant. This ill fate, Bosnia suffered even more. Many women in Bosnia were left pregnant. Today, their kids are considered bastards in Bosnia. They don’t have a future. They are ill treated by Serbs, they are ill treated by their parents, they are ill treated by the whole bloody country.”

“They are ill treated by the parents?” Sean said.

“Yes, definitely,” Berisha said, “even the mother. I have watched a lot of documentaries about it, they are having horrible problems. Horrible problems. I went to Belgrade, and I am still trying to say to myself that not all Serbs are bad. And I hope I am right.

“You are right,” I said. I met a handful of terrific Serbs in Belgrade – in particular the well-known and respected writers Filip David and Predrag Delibasic – who know very well that Albanians don't have tails, did not deserve to be ethnically-cleansed, and should not be shackled to Serbia against their will.

“Because what they have done,” Berisha said, “is they have destroyed that woman’s life, and they have destroyed the new life that comes to be born. And they have created a mess – in Bosnia, in Croatia, in Kosovo, whatever they have touched. Bosnians and Croatians, they defended themselves. Croatians, when they took action to take the Serbs out, they committed atrocities beyond imagination. But they had to take the bloody Serbs out of the country. They had to fight. When you fight for your own house, your own family, believe me, you don’t see in black and white. You see only black. There is no gray or white. Only black.”

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:40 PM | Comments (27)

The Iraq War is Over?

Michael Yon infuriated a whole swath of his audience some years ago when he said Iraq was in a state of civil war. Only the most committed anti-war leftists wanted to hear it. Vice President Dick Cheney famously and foolishly said the U.S. was “turning the corner” around the same time. Cheney is a politican. Yon is a straight-shooter. So it means something when Yon writes the following:

The war continues to abate in Iraq. Violence is still present, but, of course, Iraq was a relatively violent place long before Coalition forces moved in. I would go so far as to say that barring any major and unexpected developments (like an Israeli air strike on Iran and the retaliations that would follow), a fair-minded person could say with reasonable certainty that the war has ended. A new and better nation is growing legs. What's left is messy politics that likely will be punctuated by low-level violence and the occasional spectacular attack. Yet, the will of the Iraqi people has changed, and the Iraqi military has dramatically improved, so those spectacular attacks are diminishing along with the regular violence. Now it's time to rebuild the country, and create a pluralistic, stable and peaceful Iraq. That will be long, hard work. But by my estimation, the Iraq War is over.

I’m not willing to go that far yet and say the war in Iraq is over. I’ve been burned too many times by events in the Middle East. Optimism and reality don’t coexist easily in that part of the world. But I’ll be back in Iraq myself soon enough, and I’ll weigh in on that question then.

I should add that Yon thinks we're losing the war in Afghanistan. I'm afraid he's right, and I'm sorry as hell to say it. The American public seems to think we're winning in Afghanistan and losing in Iraq, but that is not so.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:44 AM | Comments (13)

July 13, 2008

Stand By

I wasn’t terribly productive with my writing during the past week. There were too many domestic duties and distractions -- including a family reunion and my 20-year high school reunion, which was great fun. My next dispatch is just about ready, however. Look for it here Monday night. In the meantime, use the comments box for an open thread. If you read anything interesting over the weekend, feel free to share.

And be nice in the comments. Don't make me pull over the car.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 11:44 PM | Comments (3)

July 10, 2008

You Can't Please Everybody

And it's disastrous to even try. Make of this what you will:

Most Arabs only know Barack Obama's name and skin color, so, unsurprisingly, they are fairly enthusiastic about his candidacy. But what are Thomas Friedman's Arab equivalents, the opinion leaders of the Middle East, saying about Obama? A famously diverse group--ranging from idealistic reformers to moralizing Islamists--the Arab world's pundits are almost unanimous in their skepticism of him, offering a sharp corrective to the narrative of a world united in its ardor for Obama. They have been arguing that he is not so unconventional an American politician when it comes to the Middle East, and that the people of the region have reason to be worried about an Obama presidency.
Posted by Michael J. Totten at 7:49 AM | Comments (75)

July 7, 2008

Back to Iraq this Summer

I swore I wouldn’t go back to Iraq during the summer. But I’m never able to keep promises like this to myself, so I’m sucking it up and I’m going.

I am not going yet. The trip will be closer to the end of the summer than to the beginning. I have to finish my Kosovo material first. (Thanks, by the way, for indulging me while I take a break from the sandbox. Iraq is hot, depressing, and dangerous, and I faced a choice: either do something else for a bit or burn out. I chose to do something else and write about a less unpleasant topic– though my next dispatch from Kosovo will be rather dark. Go figure. It’s not the Bahamas.)

Sadr City Baghdad.jpg
Sadr City, Iraq

This time I’ll embed with the military again, and if all goes well I will go to Sadr City. There might be a problem with embedding there, though. I’m not sure about that, and I need to look into it. While the trip is still open-ended, I’d like to ask: where would you send me if you could order me to a specific location? Is Sadr City a good choice, or would you prefer reports from somewhere else? Ever-changing events on the ground might change tentative plans anyway, but I’d still like to know your thoughts – especially if you are one of my generous readers who donates money for travel expenses.

Please let me know what you think in the comments.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 10:25 PM | Comments (57)

July 4, 2008

Happy Birthday, America

During the last week or so, my wife and I saw the first half of the HBO mini-series John Adams on DVD, which so far is excellent and highly recommended. Watching our original thirteen colonies declare and then fight for independence is electrifying. We Americans are accustomed to revolution and war taking place inside other countries, not inside our own. But of course it wasn’t always this way. We were born in revolution and war. Revolutions, as most of us have learned since, often devour their children. Reigns of terror and regimes even more grotesque than the last often follow. Other times revolutions are aborted or smashed under jackboots and tank treads. Ours could have turned out very differently than it did.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t actually read the Declaration of Independence since high school. So I read it again today, shortly after midnight on Independence Day. If, like me, you hadn’t read it for a while (if ever), today, exactly 232 years later, might be a good day to do it again.

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 12:34 AM | Comments (13)

July 2, 2008

Aftermath of a Bombing

Earlier this year I visited the Iraqi city of Karmah (also spelled Garma), a small city wedged between Fallujah and Baghdad. It was winter, and a time of jubilation and rebirth after the local defeat of the ferocious murder and intimidation campaign waged by Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Zoriah Miller, an excellent professional photographer I met last summer in Baghdad, is there now. And he witnessed the immediate aftermath of a horrific suicide bombing just a few days ago. Safety and security in Iraq are, as ever, relative and tentative concepts.

I’m glad Zoriah is okay. Others, however, are not. I know from speaking to him that he was badly shaken up by what he saw and managed to photograph in the few fleeting minutes he was allowed on the scene.

I don’t know why, exactly, I’m bringing this to your attention. Partly it is because Zoriah is a better photographer than I. His pictures in general are worth seeing. (He makes his living strictly by selling photographs, while I’ve made a mere pittance at that task myself.) It is also, I suppose, because the city of Karmah is somewhat important to me personally. I witnessed the re-opening of the market there right after the suicide- and car-bombers were mostly, but not completely, beaten back.

There’s another reason, too, one I can’t even articulate to myself. I think it’s important, at least once in a while, to look at the gruesome handiwork of a suicide bomber. There is no political message in this. Zoriah, I know, has different opinions than I do about Iraq and what should be done about it even though we have seen and experienced some of the same places and people. I do not mean to propagandize or persuade by showing this to you. Make of it what you will. But look, if you can stand it, at what these killers do. This is now part of our world.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at 1:07 AM | Comments (19)