Tuesday, August 31, 2021

End of an Era

 Yesterday, the last US military plane with the last load of military members and Afghan civilians left Kabul.  Our mission there is officially done after 20 years.  So why am I so down?  I think it's because leaving was the right thing to do, but it was done in the worst possible way.

As I stated in a previous posting, we were propping up a government that was doomed to fail no matter what we did.  The Afghan government was a kleptocracy that did not have much support from its people, who were ambivalent about it at best.  Despite all the assistance, training, and funding that we and the international community provided, we couldn't get it to do the right thing.  

Individual people, both within and outside the government, were wonderful.  Brave women stood up to advance the cause of women.  The Afghan Army and police forces took unbelievable losses in their fight against the Taliban and individual soldiers were as brave and effective as any US soldier.  I saw that myself in Kandahar.  There were people inside the government doing their best to do what was right: provide services, root out corruption, and make Afghanistan a better place.  Local leaders, despite being uneducated, could negotiate contracts as well as any Fortune 500 executive.  

But there was no leadership glue to hold the country together.  The Taliban, however, had a mission and thousands of loyal adherents. After Trump signed the withdrawal agreement, it was only a matter of time.  Everybody knew it.  The speed of the government's collapse, though, took everybody by surprise.  In my last post on this topic, the "experts" were thinking it would take 90 days.  I said it would be less than 30.  In reality, it was about 48 hours.  

The US military response was truly amazing.  From nothing, our military created a humanitarian airlift that pulled over 123,000 people out of the country in just over two weeks.  It was ugly in the beginning, but our troops quickly stood up an efficient, effective, multi-national effort.  

Parts of the State Department did a fantastic job as well.  All those Afghan evacuees had to go somewhere, and the State Department found nations in the region and elsewhere that agreed to take them.  That's not a small accomplishment.  

Other parts of this story are really ugly.  The ISIS-K attack on the airport that killed 13 of our troops and 170 Afghans, as well as wounding over 200 more, was the low point.  Another low point is the State Department's handling of the Special Immigrant Visas for those Afghans who worked with us over the past 20 years.  As I've said for years, the State Department never wanted to do SIVs and slow-rolled them from the outset.  The rationale was that rewarding capable Afghans for their service by bringing them out of Afghanistan undermined the mission.  Essentially, we were showing that we had no faith that the Afghan government would succeed.  I understand that rationale, but don't like it.  And by continuing to slow-roll visa processing even after Trump signed the withdrawal agreement, the State Department consular service left thousands of people to fend for themselves.  I'd like to take the whole State Department Consular Service, dump them in Kandahar, and let them find their own way home.

Today there's a photo making the rounds on Facebook of a bunch of military working dogs who were left in their cages at the Kabul airport.  Leaving our dogs in the airport is horrifying.  But I wouldn't want to be the individual who had to make that decision.  You've got one last plane, so do you take a bunch of Afghan women and children, or dogs?  There's no room for both.  It's a bad decision, either way.

So now we're out.  The Taliban has what they wanted: control of the country.  Now it's their turn to run it.  I don't think the Taliban will be quite as brutal as before.  Afghanistan is a "Go Fund Me" country that survives on international donations, which will be hard to come by if they don't pay at least some attention to international norms.  Well, that's the hope, anyway.  The Taliban will do what they damn well please.  And one of the things they'll have to deal with is ISIS-K.  Good luck with that.

Was it worth it?  Was it worth 20 years, thousands of lives, trillions of dollars?  Damned if I know.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Working with Models

I recently completed this portrait of Emma, a wonderful model that I’ve worked with before. 

I sent an image of it to her.  Emma loved it and posted it on Instagram.  One of her friends responded with this note: “Whoever created this portrait hasn’t looked into your kindness and lightness. I hope I get to paint an oil painting of you and show who I know you to be.”

Emma responded: “I'd love for us to art together with paint and canvas, I'd be very interested to see what what part of me you capture. This one comes from a series, where the artist gave me free range to go through different sides of me from harsh to soft, this one was from a tough edgy section of our session :). It’s been fun watching artists witness my many sides and then their interpreting of that through their art medium, so beautiful.”

The first note was not wrong.  She only saw one artwork and Emma has an infinite range of sides that I would like to try to capture.  Not only that, but Emma would probably show the commenter some different sides that she didn’t show me.  So I would love to see what this commenter would come up with.  

Emma’s response shows that she totally understands the relationship between model and artist.  It’s a collaboration.  She does her thing, I run with it, and maybe something really cool comes out of our efforts.  Very much like two musicians getting together, feeding off each other, and trying to make some new music.

These two notes - the initial comment and Emma’s response - actually get to the very essence of my work with all the various models I’ve had in my studio.  Basically, I’m a figurative artist.  I draw and paint real people.  

Some artists - most, actually - use images of people to tell stories or to convey thoughts, ideas, or emotions through figurative images.  In these artworks, the figures are really actors in a visual play.  Their real-life personal identity is immaterial.  Take Norman Rockwell’s paintings, for example.  He used his friends and neighbors to tell stories for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.  The mailman in a painting wasn’t really a mailman, he was chosen because he looked like the right character for Rockwell’s idea.  

I do this sort of thing, too, when I want to tell a story.  But a lot of the time, I’m doing an artwork to try to capture something of the specific individual in front of me.  He or she is not a generic figure, or just a slab of meat to draw, it’s Troy or Amy or Emma or James, a specific individual with a thousand different aspects to their personhood.  

I’ve had a lot of models come to my studio for photo sessions.  My guidance to them is very minimal.  Really, I just want them to be themselves.  Almost all of them quickly turned it into a play session: dancing, moving, lounging, “Vogue”ing, picking up props, changing clothes, removing clothes, putting clothes back on, talking with their hands, crawling over furniture, cranking up the music, whatever came naturally to them.  I encourage them and keep my camera going.  My goal is to let them be free to show me whatever side of their personalities they feel comfortable showing.  

These sessions typically reveal a lot about the model’s personality, often aspects that I hadn’t anticipated.  In one session, the model took a lot of poses that expressed both physical and mental strength.  A different model showed a very calm, grounded, earthy character.  A third showed her vulnerable and awkward side.  And one male was a combination of George Carlin and Robin Williams.  If I had them back for a second time, would they show me the same aspects again?  Maybe.  If they had a session with a different artist, would they show different aspects?  Almost certainly.  

So back to that initial comment about seeing Emma’s “kindness and lightness”.  I have actually seen that in her and thought it would come out in the session.  I went back over the photos and, surprisingly, it rarely did.  She was in a different mindset that day, a bit of a Vogue model, medieval witch-spirit, lawyer ballerina (now there’s a combination for you), and a variety of other characters.  It was lots of fun and I have a tremendous amount of material to work with.  But she was mostly edgy that day.  Might have to get her back for another session specifically for the kindness and loving aspects.  

One final note.  I really love my models.  All of them, male and female.  They let me see a bit of who they are, knowing that I’m going to make artworks that show other people what I see.  To them, I say thank you for your trust and openness.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Terror in Afghanistan

 Over the past couple of weeks, the Taliban has been on a roll, seizing more and more territory from the Afghan government.  They have almost all the provincial capitols now.  Today, Herat and Ghazni fell and Kandahar is falling.  The civilian population is in a panic.  Those that can, are fleeing to Kabul, but that may just be delaying the inevitable.  The US Embassy is sending almost everybody home as fast as possible.  They're not calling it an "emergency evacuation" yet, but that's what it really is.  They're moving diplomatic operations to a US-controlled area at the Kabul airport.  And the Pentagon is bringing in 3,000 troops to ensure the safety of the evacuation.  I saw a report that many diplomats expect Kabul to fall within 90 days.  Personally, I think it will be much quicker, probably not even a month.

I'm of two minds about this.  On the one hand, we've been propping up the government for twenty years now.  We screwed up early on when we took our eye off the Afghan ball and decided it would be great to invade Iraq.  The Taliban saw that we weren't really all that interested in Afghanistan and decided to get their band back together.  Meanwhile, anyone in any Afghan position of power used it to enrich themselves as much as possible.  Graft was built into the system.  If there's one thing the Afghans learned, it was to grab as much as possible when you could because you never knew when the Americans' largesse would end.

They had a reason to feel that way.  Bush and Obama didn't really seem to know what they wanted.  They'd engage and ramp up, then announce they were ramping down and would soon be out, only to ramp up again.  Those of us who went there did our best to try to make it work.  However, when I left in 2012, I was not optimistic.  A government built on graft was not a good bet for longevity.  Still, we poured a lot of money and a lot of effort into giving the Afghan government the tools we believed were necessary in a modern world.  The one thing we couldn't give them was a sense of mission, a common purpose.  And the government we propped up didn't have that.

The Taliban did.  As other insurgent operations over the centuries have proven (see U.S. War of Independence, Viet Nam, and the Cuban Revolution, for examples), a few guys with substandard weapons and a commitment to a cause can beat established powers.  So when Donald Trump announced that we were pulling out for good, and damn the consequences, the Taliban saw their opening.  Although negotiations continued, the announcement that we weren't going to play anymore signaled the Taliban to just wait us out.  Then Biden confirmed the pullout.  So the Taliban stepped up their game and now they're on a deadly roll.  The government we have propped up for 20 years was never strong enough to hold their own, would never be strong enough, and this result was inevitable.

So: on the one hand, if this was inevitable, it's time to cut our losses and let the inevitable happen, right?  We can't impose our way of government on another country if it's not a good fit.  It's an Afghan problem and can only be solved by Afghans.

Then there's the other hand.  The Taliban is as brutal, inhumane, animalistic, and criminal as any pariah regime that has ever existed.  They're even more brutal than the Nazis.  Beheadings, rape, kidnapping, and destruction of lives and property are the standard way of doing business.  People are dying, right now, as I write this, and probably as you read this.  

I have a friend who is an Afghan.  He served with the Special Forces and Navy SEALS as an interpreter in some brutal fights.  He earned a Special Immigrant Visa and came to the United States, then earned a Masters degree from Georgetown University.  He went to Afghanistan earlier this year to get married, then returned to the US to work and begin the paperwork to bring his bride.  She, his family, and her family are in Herat.  And Herat was just taken by the Taliban today.

That's the "other hand": the personal cost that our pullout is inflicting on real people.  Right now.