The Lioness of Afghanistan

by Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times and the Foreign Policy Association

One American woman’s personal battle to turn back the tide on the Taliban

Sonia Nassery Cole commands a room no matter what the size, and it’s for a good cause.

Cole, who has both Afghan and American citizenship, is founder and CEO of the Afghanistan World Foundation (AWF). The non-profit organization works to assist the humanitarian needs of Afghans and rebuild their country. AWF was founded in the wake of 9/11 in 2002, but its roots go back to the 1980s when Cole became a vocal advocate for her home country. She started by writing a letter to then-President Ronald Reagan to ask for his help.

Sonia Nassery Cole at the Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Sonia Nassery Cole at the Children's Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan.

“I never dreamed that he wouldn’t answer my letter,” says Ms. Cole, recalling her first step into what has become a lifetime of advocating on behalf of those who have no voice.

But Reagan did respond, and invited the young refugee to the White House. She organized congressional testimony to arm legendary Afghan rebel commander Ahmad Massoud and his Northern Alliance Freedom Fighters. Massoud, who was later assassinated, was nicknamed the lion of Afghanistan. He called Cole his “lioness” for her work and spirit on behalf of their country. It’s a nickname she has lived up to, and then some.

Cole is as unfailingly polite as she is incomparably passionate about rebuilding Afghanistan from decades of war and the poison grip of the Taliban. And she knows how to be genuinely charming when describing deadly serious situations.

Case in point was a recent screening and presentation in New York City of a documentary she produced about an 8-year-old Afghan boy who is the sole income-earner in his family, called The Bread Winner. Cole surprised the audience by stepping out from behind the podium to give a heartfelt explanation of the story behind the making of the documentary.

But if Ms. Cole has mastered the art of charming an audience, she also knows how to keep the focus on the urgent situation in Afghanistan.

“The country is falling apart because of the Taliban,” said Ms. Cole during the presentation.


Top Photojournalists Gather at Brooklyn Gallery

by Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times

See Tim Hetherington in NYC on Dec. 8, 2009, click here for more details

NEW YORK—Close on the heels of the New York Photo Festival, VII photography agency hosted two provocative events at their studio in Brooklyn. Both events featured discussions with photojournalists and documentary photographers on the state of their craft locally and around the world.
Gary Knight at VII in Brooklyn The events on May 21 and 22 were both co-sponsored by dispatches, a journal created by veteran journalists and photojournalists. The journal is a book-like quarterly publication centered on a different theme in each publication, and includes photo essays and reportage (reporting underwritten with personal insight). The most recent edition, “Out of Poverty,” looks at issues related to poverty around the world.

“It [was created] out of a frustration that I was being asked to look at things in an increasingly banal way,” said Gary Knight, editor and art director of dispatches. Knight, who is also co-founder of VII, has photo essays on global poverty featured in the current issue of dispatches.

He says he tries to bring something human and hopeful to people with his photographs.

“You don’t want to leave people in despair,” said Knight, who showed an audience of about 50 a slideshow of his photographs of poverty from dispatches at the May 21 event. “There always has to be some sense of hope.”

Shots from Brazil, India, and Ohio were included and will be on display at the VII gallery through June 16. Audience members were also invited to print their own photos of poverty and add them to a wall in the gallery. About 25 audience photographs were displayed.


Cops and Terrorists and the Cities in Between

by Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times

New York City is one of the safest places to be in the post-9/11 world, believe it or not. Just look at the foiled terrorist plot on May 20 uncovered through a joint NYPD-FBI sting operation. Homegrown terrorists wanted to use surface-to-air missiles to blow up a synagogue. But instead of getting their wish of punishing Americans, they got booked by police for their insidious plot.

The reason these and other terrorists have not attacked New York since 9/11 can be found in journalist Christopher Dickey’s new book, Securing the City: Inside America’s Best Counterterrorism Force—the NYPD.

Through meticulous research and exhaustive interviews, Dickey, who is Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor for Newsweek, explains how New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and NYPD counterterrorism division head David Cohen created an elite counterterrorism force from among the ranks of the NYPD.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the bureaucracy of the CIA, FBI, DHS, DIA, and NSA (the “three-letter guys,” as police call them) proved to have cumbersome processes for warding off future attacks. Kelly was of this opinion, and after being reinstated as New York Police Department Commissioner in 2002, he found NYPD cops who could go inside the world of potential terrorists—in New York and cities around the world. The road to creating that elite force and the impact on public security since is described in Dickey’s book.


New Book Takes Readers Inside the NYPD’s Counterterrorism Work

by Genevieve Long for The Epoch Times

NEW YORK—With 32,000 police, the New York Police Department is the country’s largest police force and has been hardest-hit by terrorist attacks. It’s an operation that needs to have more than a few tricks up its sleeve.

One of these is the NYPD’s Intelligence Unit—an elite group of 600 officers and analysts stationed in New York City and throughout the world. The work of the unit, which was created after 9/11, is detailed in the new book “Securing the City” by Christopher Dickey. Dickey is the Paris Bureau Chief and Middle East Regional Editor for Newsweek magazine.

The book, which was released this month, was written with the close cooperation of the NYPD and police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who says the specialized unit was created because information from the federal government was too slow in coming. After 9/11, he realized the NYPD could no longer rely on the CIA, FBI, and NSA to keep New York City safe.

“Everything is bureaucratized, everything is slowed down in the federal government,” said Kelly during a recent discussion with Dickey at the Overseas Press Club in Manhattan. Kelly says in the years since 9/11, the NYPD has focused on how to create a highly skilled and versatile unit with members who not only understand the world of terrorists, but who speak their language and even their slang.

Kelly says these basic communication skills are vital to the work they do.

“We took all of the speakers of the sensitive languages and sent them to Berlitz [language schools],” said Kelly. Many of those used for the special assignment are foreign-born immigrants who the federal government will not clear to do counterterrorism work. Kelly thinks that such an exclusion is a mistake, and understanding subtle linguistic nuances can make for truly useful intelligence. “They know the slang of the back streets of Karachi because they are from the back streets of Karachi,” said Kelly about the members of the unit.


An American Face from the War in Iraq

by Genevieve Long for Media and Foreign Policy

There are few photos of the Iraq war as poignant and iconic as that of Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller. The photo, known as the “Marlboro Marine”, was taken by Los Angeles Times photojournalist Luis Sinco.

The war-weary Marine with a cigarette dangling from his mouth in  the battle of Fallujah in 2004 is more than an American face far from home. At some level, although it was taken nearly five years ago, it embodies the weariness of the American people and their military–set adrift in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, more than ever, they are two conflicts that seem to have no end, no solution, no happy road out.

Sinco’s photograph, and his personal connection with Lance Corporal Miller, gave birth to a series of engaging and at times breathtaking pictures that, when woven together, create a picture of a life after. After war, after killing, after trying to go back and realizing nothing will ever be the same.

A slideshow of Sinco’s photographs of Miller, post-Iraq, can be found here.


Politicians Don’t Decide What Information Illuminates a Story

by Genevieve Long for the Foreign Policy Association

U.S. President Barack Obama reversed a significant decision this past week. He decided to go back on his promise to release photographs of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan that were taken a few years ago. The popular sentiment among the more conservative-minded might be that Obama is well within his right as Commander-in-Chief to do what he considers in the interest of national security. On the surface this does appear to be a sound argument for the reversed decision.

But dig a little deeper, and the logic that national security and our troops are being protected by thwarting the publication of said photos is actually a hairline crack in the foundation of free speech. And it’s the type of decision that can weaken a democracy.

In 1798, Thomas Jefferson said:

“One of the amendments to the Constitution… expressly declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,’ thereby guarding in the same sentence and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press; insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others.”

The freedom to think, speak, and believe freely is a great source of strength for Americans. But it can also be a great challenge. We are given explicit protection to be free, but no explicit instructions how to use that freedom. Therein lies the genius of the founding fathers’ conclusion in the Declaration of Independence that government must draw it’s “just powers from the consent of the governed”. A consenting citizenry must be an informed citizenry, otherwise it will always be at odds over what exactly it is consenting to.

Photos of detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, for this very reason, should be released. The world, not just Americans, learned in the worst way that what goes on overseas in dark prison cells in the name of the United States makes the citizens of the United States linked to those events by association. Abu Grahib. Guantanamo. Black sites in Europe. The world will never know the extent of suffering that has been inflicted, only the imagined possibilities based on pieces of the story.

During a press briefing in Washington on May 13, President Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs made the basic point in the President’s argument to a fiesty press corps confounded by Obama’s decision.

Gibbs’s response, in part:


Must Read Books: Dexter Filkins’ “The Forever War”

Read an excerpt from a recent interview with Dexter Filkins here

by Genevieve Long

If you read only one book about Iraq and Afghanistan this year, make it “The Forever War”, by New York Times foreign correspondent Dexter Filkins. It is full of insightful, lyrical vignettes about the war in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, when Filkins was living there and reporting for the Times. It also includes about forty pages about Afghanistan just prior to the beginning of the war in Iraq.

What Filkins’ book accomplishes, in the short term, is to make a war on the other side of the world come to vivid life. Sometimes it is done in a manner that is startling and unnerving. In fact, when I was reading “The Forever War” for a book review, it gave me nightmares. But it also gave me a deeper understanding about an incredibly complex situation.

Within its pages, the book manages to cover the vast expanse of human experiences encountered in the face of a war like that in Iraq. It moves seamlessly from being so accustomed to suicide car bombings that a human being’s spinal cord on the ground is easily recognizable, to recognizing frustrated indignation in an Iraqi woman’s eyes when she insists on voting day that democracy is “just talking”. You can read my full review of the book at The Epoch Times.

Filkins’ book has won acclaim from readers and reviews. One such review, by George Packer, author of “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq”, perfectly encapsulates the essence of why “The Forever War” is so timeless and a must-read for any American who wants to understand the impact that the war in Iraq has had.

Packer’s review reads, in part:

The Forever War is already a classic—it has the timeless feel of all great war literature. A lot has been written about Iraq and Afghanistan, but no one has seen as much, survived as much, and registered the horror with such sad eloquence as Dexter Filkins. His combination of courage and sensitivity is so rare that books like his come along only once every major war. This one is ours.”

Filkins, who spent the fall of 2008 on tour as his newly-published book climbed the New York Times’ bestseller list, recently returned from spending about six weeks on assignment in Afghanistan. His articles from that trip are must-reads for understanding the deepening crisis there.