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‘Our Man’: What Richard Holbrooke’s Story Tells Us About America And The World

It all began so promisingly. Young Richard Holbrooke, a gangly 21-year-old graduate of Brown, joined the Foreign Service in 1962, inspired by the idealism of President John F. Kennedy. The State Department assigned him to the rural southern tip of Vietnam. In a region where the South Vietnamese army and its American advisers claimed to have eliminated the communist guerrillas, Holbrooke discovered the Viet Cong were actually pervasive and getting stronger. Observant, clever, and energetic, Holbrooke was an early witness to the collective delusions driving the U.S. war in Vietnam.

Holbrooke dodged bullets and filed reports. He sniffed the breezes of the U.S. embassy where American ambassadors and generals thought they could shuffle local leaders to achieve the victory they assumed was inevitable. He didn’t know all the American men had Vietnamese mistresses. He didn’t quite get the menace of the Quiet American, the prototypical interloper of Graham Greene’s novel, whose blind desire to do good has bloody consequences. But in his lucid letters and reports, Holbrooke conveyed the awful reality that the United States—his government—was inflicting catastrophic violence on a country it barely understood.

Holbrooke dreamed of doing good by doing better. Upon his return to Washington, he dedicated his brain and body to becoming secretary of state (or national security adviser) in the pretentious Great Man mold of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. He schemed and seduced constantly, all while maintaining a constant presence in Washington policy discussions. In every presidential election year from 1984 to 2008, Holbrooke was touted as a leading contender for secretary of state in the next Democratic administration.

Brilliant and abrasive, Holbrooke aspired to the peak of power but never quite summited. In his last assignment as special envoy to Afghanistan, he hoped to salvage a historic peace agreement. President Obama never gave him the chance. The Afghan war was still droning on when he died in 2011.

Holbrooke is the verbose, lucid, obsessive, tricky, but not quite tragic hero of Our Man, George Packer’s endlessly engaging biography. A former New Yorker staff writer, Packer unspools Holbrooke’s story as a rich and sinuous tale of American Exceptionalism, the problematic—if not demonstrably false—notion that America is uniquely endowed to steer the affairs of the entire planet.

Packer is acute on the realities of Holbrooke’s ambition—the narcissism, mendacity, and vanity that powered it. He does not flinch from its cost to females, friends and family. Our Man is not a case study in the exercise of American power. It is a cautionary tale about the manic pursuit of it.

It is also essential reading for the thundering herd of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as they begin to define themselves on issues of war and peace. The next Democratic president will have to assemble a national security team and manage a global military empire. Holbrooke’s career illuminates how the last three Democratic presidents—Carter, Clinton, and Obama—handled this challenge, while accommodating and deflecting his ambitions. Holbrooke’s legacy, it turns out, is one Democratic presidents have preferred to avoid.

Packer is the sympathetic pal kind of biographer. At the outset, he warns that his biography will favor character over history, the personal over the political, and so it does. He was friends with Holbrooke and mixed with his social set. He makes no apologies for his access to his subject and seems aware of its inevitable costs. He wastes no time on Holbrooke’s childhood, barely mentions his parents and jumps right into his pursuit of power.

Holbrooke was appalled by what he had seen in Vietnam and the refusal of President Richard Nixon to de-escalate. He left the Foreign Service in 1969. He became editor of Foreign Policy, a new quarterly policy journal and rival to the stuffier Foreign Affairs. Writing and editing articles kept his name and ideas in circulation while President Nixon was self-destructing and Gerald Ford lost the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter.

In 1977, Carter appointed Holbrooke as assistant secretary of state for Asia. Packer highlights one of Holbrooke’s real accomplishments: securing the admission of some two million refugees from Vietnam into America in the late 1970s. Packer doesn’t even have to mention current events on the Mexican border to say the Carter-Holbrooke policy “shames us today.”

He does not dally on Holbrooke’s diplomacy in Indonesia, where the government was waging a scorched earth campaign against rebels in the breakaway province of East Timor. On a visit in April 1977, notes historian Brad Simpson at the non-profit National Security Archive, Holbrooke “offered no criticism of Indonesia’s human rights record while ‘acknowledging efforts President Suharto appeared to be making to resolve Indonesian problems,’ especially on East Timor, where he ‘applauded’ the President’s judgment in allowing Congressional members to visit the territory but remained mute on reports of ongoing atrocities.”

Packer mentions only in passing another lesser milestone in Holbrooke’s career: the Gwangju massacre in South Korea in May 1980. At the time, South Korea was ruled by an unstable and unseemly fascist dictatorship. The chief of the Korean CIA had recently assassinated his boss, the president, during a very unpleasant office meeting. The dictatorship was trying to consolidate itself while a popular movement rallied in the streets for the restoration of democracy. A grassroots movement took over the southern city of Gwangju, a university town known for its independent ways. After the Korean armed forces slaughtered some of the unarmed demonstrators, U.S. policymakers were apprised that elite military units were mobilizing to finish the job.

Here was a life and death test of the lessons learned in Vietnam: How far should the U.S. government indulge a repressive ally? Where to draw the line? At a White House meeting in May 1980, President Carter decided, with Holbrooke’s concurrence, that they had to let the Koreans “maintain law and order.” The last protesters were massacred. Holbrooke kept quiet while privately seeking to save dissident leader (and future president) Kim Dae-Jung from execution.

Packer gives Holbrooke a pass on East Timor and Gwangju. Human rights considerations are inevitably sacrificed to national interests, he avers. The American ideal of promoting human rights is impossible to achieve. “Be unhappy when senior officials fail to live up to it,” Packer writes. “Just don’t be surprised.”

If the point is that the real world sometimes offers excruciating trade-offs between security and human rights, Packer is surely right. It is less obvious that Holbrooke made the right choice. The threat of a North Korean attack was more a pretext than a reality. The South Koreans were in no position to buck a pre-emptive warning from Washington to stand down. Holbrooke didn’t speak up, and hundreds of people were killed. Gwangju has never forgotten, even if Washington has.

The lesson for 2020 Democrats? U.S. rhetoric about human rights will never be credible—especially in the wake of Trump’s embrace of dictators everywhere—unless the next president is willing to back human rights rhetoric with action to protect democratic forces.

Holbrooke’s idealism had evolved into realism, if not cynicism. He had acquiesced, Packer notes, to an ironic reality of post-Vietnam national security politics in Washington. Policymakers, like Holbrooke, who recognized the folly of the Vietnam war and warned against reflexive military interventions would forever suffer from the reputation of being “soft.” The hawks who favored futile escalation were rewarded with a reputation for toughness.

The 2020 Democrats, candidates and voters alike, need to understand this pernicious dynamic is still at work in Washington, where the intellectual authors of the Iraq fiasco are considered as credible as the critics who predicted it. The next Democratic president need not make that mistake.

Holbrooke’s policy legacy is not easy to discern. In the fiercest Washington policy debates of the 1980s, Holbrooke was more notable for his absence than his presence. He barely figured in the two most contentious issues of the day: the bloody civil wars of Central America (which most Democrats wanted to stay out of) and the nuclear freeze (which Democrats and many independents favored). Over the course of the decade, these controversies mutated into the Iran-contra scandal and the end of the Cold War. In these events, Holbrooke offered no special insights or even much involvement.

Packer covers this period in Holbrooke’s life from 1980 to 1992, the Reagan-Bush era, with a breezy style in barely 30 pages:

The scene shifted to New York, just as the Wall Street carnival was getting started. He made money for the first time and acquired a new roster of friends, more chiefs than Indians because that’s how it goes when you rise with age. Girlfriends—of course! For all the hot lights of Manhattan, you’ll find that during stretches of the eighties he grows indistinct—the very glare of the camera starts to blur the man. But the interior light in that sleepless brain never dimmed. The whole time he was positioning, connecting, learning, expanding, surveying, getting ready for the only thing that really mattered.

Namely, his own return to power.

A more analytical biographer might have compared Holbrooke’s career to his contemporary Elliott Abrams, another national security operator on the rise in the 1980s. While Holbrooke was getting rich from a Wall Street sinecure, falling in love with high-powered women, and plotting his return to power, Abrams was making policy for the hawkish cabal around President Reagan.

Abrams defended the death squads of El Salvador. He brokered secret deals for the CIA-trained contras in Nicaragua. Packer’s character-driven narrative only occasionally glances up at the larger political landscape or its implications. Unlike Abrams, Holbrooke had no mission larger than fulfilling his own genius, following “the interior light in that sleepless brain.” Abrams embraced the impunity of the empire; Holbrooke embraced its privileges. Abrams is still around, modus operandi unchanged.

The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 delivered a Democrat into the White House. Alas, it did not deliver Holbrooke to the seat of power. Clinton didn’t much care about foreign policy, and he didn’t need an aspiring Great Man to run the State Department. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 had left America without a dangerous enemy, a luxury the next president won’t have. Clinton (and First Lady Hillary) preferred to pursue a national health care plan and put foreign policy on autopilot. Clinton chose an unimaginative lawyer, Warren Christopher, as his secretary of state.

In 1994 Holbrooke caught a break. Clinton gave him a thankless assignment beyond Christopher’s limited skillset: negotiate an end to the vicious ethno-nationalist bloodletting in Bosnia. Over the course of a grueling year, Holbrooke coaxed the Balkan leaders into a peace agreement. Along with the admission of the Vietnamese refugees, the Dayton Accords was a genuine accomplishment. Few others in the U.S. government could have pulled it off, and he probably saved thousands of lives.

The rewards were few. Clinton contemplated promoting Holbrooke but backed off. The Nobel Prize Committee didn’t give him a Peace Prize, perhaps because the NSC memorandum documenting his acquiescence in the Gwangju massacre became public in 1994.

In time, Holbrooke became a prisoner of the same sort of Washington orthodoxies that he had once seen right through. After 9/11, he supported President Bush’s campaign to invade Iraq. He urged aspiring Democratic presidential contenders John Kerry and Hillary Clinton to do the same.

“Vietnam had taught him again and again that a soft Democrat was politically doomed,” Packer writes.

The supposedly savvy Holbrooke was dead wrong. Kerry and Clinton voted for the war, and they wound up with the scarlet letter “I” forever stamped on their foreheads. (Packer admits he made the same mistake, “stupidly” and “disastrously” endorsing Bush’s war.) In the same period, an unknown state senator named Barack Obama opposed the war on principle and gained a reputation for prescience and prudence that helped propel him to the White House. There’s a lesson for the 2020 presidential aspirants.

The last chapter of Holbrooke’s career, as special envoy to Afghanistan, verges on the pathetic. The realities of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan echoed Vietnam in every way: the impermeable local culture, the feckless and corrupt allies, the overweening American ambassadors, and the generals’ self-serving reports of “progress.”

Yet the mature Holbrooke repeated all the mistakes he dissected as a young man. He managed to alienate his boss, Obama, and his host, Afghan president Hamid Karzai, while getting patronized by White House staffers and ultimately rolled by Gen. David Petraeus, who squelched his dreams of a peace agreement. In his last hurrah, he achieved nothing but his own marginalization. And he would emerge from meetings clueless, telling aides, “[that] went well.

Packer’s epitaph for Holbrooke’s career is an epitaph for American Exceptionalism and for the wars it generates:

By the end he was living in each chapter of his life simultaneously—Kennedy and Obama, Vietnam and Bosnia and Afghanistan—as if he were floating in a single body of water whose temperature varied from place to place and depth to depth. All that accumulated experience—we Americans don’t want it. We’re almost embarrassed by it, except when we’re burying it. So we forget our mistakes or recoil from them, we swing wildly between superhuman exertion and sullen withdrawal, always looking for the answers in our own goodness and wisdom instead of where they lie, out in the world, and in history. I’m amazed we came through our half century on top as well as we did. Now it’s over.

What comes next is the question that the 2020 Democrats, candidates and voters alike, need to answer in the next 17 months. The United States is waging war in four theaters (Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen) while maintaining a uniformed military presence in 149 countries. President Trump has trashed the State Department, traditional alliances, and multilateral institutions. He has replaced diplomacy with bluster and transactional deals.

The belief that America is uniquely endowed to do good sustains this global empire and energizes Trump’s bullying “regime change” rhetoric in Venezuela and Iran. It is a myth that should be buried. After the trillion-dollar failures of Afghanistan and Iraq and the incoherent transactionalism of Trump, the next president has to find a foreign policy that is less reckless and more focused on the well-being of the American people.

For better and worse, the accumulated experience of Richard Holbrooke is a good guide to what should be embraced and avoided. As his very best, Holbrooke showed the United States could serve as an honest broker pacifying the international system. At his more common worst, he enabled the violent illusions of American Exceptionalism.

The 2020 Democrats, meaning both candidates and voters, can do better. The Americans who resisted the brutal proxy wars of Central America in the 1980s (that yielded the failed states of today) did not assume American wisdom and goodness. They questioned it. Those who warned against the folly of Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s did not bury the experience of the past. They pushed it to the fore and were ignored by the likes of Packer. They knew the sell-by date of the doctrine of American Exceptionalism had expired long before Richard Holbrooke.

Jefferson Morley is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a reporter and editor in Washington, D.C., since 1980. He spent 15 years as an editor and reporter at the Washington Post. He was a staff writer at Arms Control Today and Washington editor of Salon. He is the editor and co-founder of JFK Facts, a blog about the assassination of JFK. His latest book is The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster, James Jesus Angleton.

This article was produced by the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

IMAGE: The official State Department photo portrait of Richard Holbrooke, dated November 5, 2009. 




Radovan Karadzic Has Been Convicted Of Genocide

Today, a special UN tribunal sentenced Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic to 40 years in jail for crimes he committed during the Bosnian War. Karadzic was a chief architect of a Serbian campaign to eradicate Bosnia’s Muslims, leading to the deaths of 200,000 Bosnians between 1992-1995.

During a speech given on October 14, 1991, just months before the Bosnian War broke out, Karadzic warned the Bosnian parliament of the consequences of voting for independence, despite the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from the federation months earlier.

“This, what you are doing, is not good. This is the path that you want to take Bosnia and Herzegovina on, the same highway of hell and death that Slovenia and Croatia went on. Don’t think that you won’t take Bosnia and Herzegovina into hell, and the Muslim people maybe into extinction. Because the Muslim people cannot defend themselves if there is war here.”

The hell he described was already on TV screens across the Western world. While Slovenia escaped most of the fighting that consumed the rest of the fracturing Yugoslav state, Croatia did not. The war, which started in March for the Croats, had already reached its peak by the time Karadzic gave his speech. Just weeks before his speech warning against Bosnian independence, the Yugoslav navy had blockaded Croatian ports and fighting raged between Croat and Serb military units.

These weren’t the only remarks made by Karadzic advocating for violence against Bosnia’s Muslims. During his trial, a list of radio intercepts captured during the war were recited to the court. In one recording, he said “Sarajevo will be a black cauldron, where 300,000 Muslims will die. It will be a real bloodbath.” The siege of Sarajevo was the longest of a capital city in modern warfare, with the Bosnian capital besieged for over 1,400 days before a Croat-Bosnian offensive forced the Serbs from their positions overlooking the city.

Karadzic was part of a cadre of Bosnian Serbs who were vehemently opposed to the break up of Yugoslavia. Serbs dominated the effort to keep Yugoslavia together, as the newly-formed states stopped sending conscripts to the national military and non-Serbs defected to their ethnic homelands. With the secession of Croatia and Slovenia from Yugoslavia months earlier, they wanted to ensure the same would not take place in Bosnia, whose population contained a larger Serbian minority and was located closer to Serb majority regions.

The former Bosnian Serb leader was found guilty of 10 of 11 charges laid against him, including a single count of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and four counts of war crimes. The most important charge was of genocide, as it implicated Karadzic in the planning and execution of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. A key piece of evidence was another intercepted radio call, in which he said, “The time had come. I was in favour of all the decisions that we made and I support them. I ordered in verbal and written form to attack Srebrenica.”

The verdict was delivered following a five year trial and a further 18 months of deliberation before the decision was handed down by the ICTY, the special tribunal for war crimes during the break up of Yugoslavia.

Vetting Bernie: He Never Voted For Intervention In Iraq — Except Twice

The only topic that preoccupies Bernie Sanders more than income inequality is his vote against authorization of war in Iraq, which he mentions at every debate and whenever anyone questions his foreign policy credentials. Fair enough: Sanders turned out to be right on that vote and Hillary Clinton has admitted that she was wrong to trust George W. Bush.

But the socialist Vermont senator is under fresh scrutiny today on the (further) left, where his support for intervention in Bosnia and Afghanistan has raised sharp questions. In Counter-Punch, the online magazine founded by the late Alexander Cockburn, his longtime collaborator Jeffrey St. Clair complains that even on Iraq, Sanders is a “hypocrite” who was never as consistently anti-intervention as advertised:

In 1998 Sanders voted in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which said: “It should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.”

Later that same year, Sanders also backed a resolution that stated: “Congress reaffirms that it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq and to promote the emergence of a democratic  government to replace that regime.”

According to St. Clair, Sanders has dismissed those votes as “almost unanimous,” but that implies an absurdly elastic definition of the term. Looking up the actual vote, St. Clair found that 38 members of varying ideology and party affiliation voted no. To him, this means Sanders should be held responsible for the bombing campaign that followed, as well as the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children who allegedly perished as a result of US sanctions (which seems to absolve the late dictator of any culpability for the sanctions regime, but never mind).

Certainly it is fair to ask Sanders — who strives to distance himself from his rival on foreign and security policy – why he cast those fateful votes to support Bill Clinton’s Iraq policy in 1998.

Extremists Worry The Balkans, Europe’s Muslim Heartland

By Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

GORNJA MAOCA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — One day in early February, the black flag of the Islamic State appeared on the roof of a dilapidated home in Gornja Maoca, an isolated hamlet in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The flag was gone when the police arrived, and whoever hoisted it was never found. But the episode reaffirmed to Bosnian officials and Western intelligence agencies that the settlement, peopled by followers of Saudi Arabia’s puritanical brand of Islam, known as Wahhabism, has ties to the networks that have recruited hundreds of Muslim men from across the Balkans to fight in Syria and Iraq.

“It is fair to say that it (Gorjna Maoca) is perhaps the biggest center of extremism in Bosnia,” said a Western intelligence official. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss sensitive information with a journalist. While the region hasn’t seen the kinds of mass terrorist attacks that have shocked France, they wouldn’t be a surprise, the official said: “We’ve seen aspirational plotting.”

Most of the men who’ve left the Balkans to fight in the Middle East come from Bosnia and Kosovo, parts of former Yugoslavia whose independence was secured by U.S.-led military interventions in the 1990s. Nearly half of Bosnia’s 3.8 million people are Muslim. Kosovo, whose 1.8 million population is 95 percent Muslim, arguably is Europe’s most pro-American country. A statue and massive portrait of former President Bill Clinton overlook a thoroughfare named after him in the capital, Pristina, where there’s also a street named for George W. Bush and a boutique named for Hillary Clinton.

Since the wars, the United States and its European partners have spent billions of dollars and years of diplomacy trying to help build the two nations into stable democracies. Yet both countries are mired in dysfunctional governance, pervasive corruption, ethnic divisions and poverty-fueled despair, conditions that have boosted the appeal of hard-line Islam, the seeds of which were planted, ironically, with the help of some of America’s closest Arab allies.

And even as Balkan men fight in Syria and Iraq, mostly with the Islamic State, fundamentalists at home are intensifying attacks on the legitimacy of the liberal version of Islam that’s evolved in the Balkans over centuries. The result is mounting fears that the assault on traditional Islam will intensify, fueling insecurity, and that Bosnia and Kosovo could become pathways to the West for deeply radicalized jihadis.

“For these conservative radical groups, their first purpose is to take over the Muslim community of Kosovo,” said Ramadan Ilazi, the country’s deputy minister for European integration and an expert on political Islam. “It’s a real challenge.”

Even if they don’t indulge themselves, most Balkan Muslims tolerate drinking and smoking. They eschew Islamic-style beards and veils and rarely — if ever — attend mosque. They freely mix with the opposite sex and members of other faiths, and marry non-Muslims.

Some traditional clerics who’ve spoken out against extremism have been harassed, assaulted and forced out of their mosques. They’ve had their sermons disrupted and have been denounced as infidels on videos and radical websites that condemn traditional Islam as apostasy.

On Monday in Bosnia, an alleged Islamist extremist died in an attack on a police station that killed a Bosnian Serb officer. In November in Kosovo, two American women serving as Mormon missionaries were assaulted by suspected extremists, two of whom were later charged, along with five others, with plotting terrorist attacks. An expatriate Kosovar was convicted of raking a bus with gunfire in 2011 at Frankfurt Airport, killing two U.S. soldiers, Germany’s first fatal attack by an Islamist. In 2013, a Bosnian court convicted a Wahhabi of planting a bomb that killed a Bosnian Croat police officer.

Reporters who’ve investigated Islamist groups and the recruitment of fighters, and politicians who’ve sounded alarms about creeping fundamentalism, have received death threats.

“Anyone who is not like them is (considered) a nonbeliever,” said Alma Lama, a Kosovo Assembly member who’s sought police protection for herself and her family because of “thousands” of threats triggered by her denunciations of hard-line Islam and its denial of women’s rights. “These guys are inciting hatred between religious groups and gender hatred.”

“The radicals are threats to us traditional Muslims, not to Serbs and not to Croats,” said Shaykh Edin Kukavica, a Bosnian cleric of Islam’s mystical Sufi branch who recently received a text message warning him that “the arrow is on its way.”

While the number of hard-line Islamists in both countries is very small, officials agree that just a few who acquire combat skills in the Middle East is too many.

“Even if only one person had gone, it would be a problem, and we are taking this problem very seriously,” said Amir Veiz, the director of counterterrorism for the State Investigation and Protection Agency, the Bosnian state police.

Both countries have stepped up crackdowns on extremists, officials say, and are coordinating closely with U.S. and European intelligence agencies to throttle the flow of men and women to Iraq and Syria, where as many as 160 Bosnians and some 300 Kosovars, some with their families, are said to be fighting. A few joined the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian wing, but the bulk enlisted with the Islamic State.

Still, Kosovo, with its small population, remains the largest per-capita European contributor of fighters to the Islamic State, and some experts say both governments initially minimized the problem to cover up their failures to act earlier and to avoid alienating powerful religious conservatives.

“I had information that 150 to 200 people were fighting, but the government said there were only 10,” said Vehbi Kajtazi, a journalist at Kosovo’s main independent newspaper, Koha Ditore, who charged that he was pressured to stop writing about the issue. “The government was trying to suppress this, but they couldn’t because the problem is a big issue for Kosovo.”

“We are already a bit late, I think, and this is why this is an emergency situation in terms of the need for a response, a response that is comprehensive economically speaking, socially, politically,” said Ilazi, Kosovo’s deputy minister for European integration.

Hard-line Islam was carried to the Balkans by hundreds of mostly Arab foreign fighters who helped Bosnia’s Muslim-led government, hamstrung by a U.N. arms embargo, resist the country’s dismemberment by Serbia and Croatia in a war that lasted from 1992 to 1995. A much smaller number joined the ethnic Albanian rebels who fought for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.

The foreigners — many of whom later are thought to have joined al-Qaida — were Takfiris, radicals who embrace violence in rejecting secular politics, culture and other faiths, and seek to return to the “pure” Islamic rule that they believe was founded by the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh-century Arabian Peninsula.

They were backed by funds from Saudi Arabia and other U.S. Arab allies, and their proselytizing was reinforced by a flood of Islamist charities offering money, food and educational training in return for devotion to their hard-line practices.

Virtually all the foreigners eventually left — a few married Bosnian women — but the charities stayed. Flush with cash in struggling, war-damaged societies, they won devotees by expanding aid programs, rebuilding mosques and constructing new ones, supported by officials who welcomed the money and the patronage of powerful Muslim countries, experts said.

The charities “found a fertile place here,” said Denis Hadzovic, the head of the Center for Strategic Studies, a Sarajevo policy institute. “They began to be more aggressive in their behavior and their efforts to promote another approach to Islam.”

While the Bosnian and Kosovar governments shuttered more than a dozen Islamist charities during crackdowns last year, the organizations’ influence is widely apparent.
Skullcapped men wearing Islamic-style beards and Arabic dress now are a common sight in the villages and cities of Kosovo and Bosnia, where their baggy, calf-length trousers are derided as “floodwater pants.” Young local clerics trained in fundamentalist seminaries in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are running mosques.

Stores selling Islamic women’s garb — including veils and head-to-toe coverings — religious texts and videos, halal food and other Arabic goods are clustered around Pristina’s Ottoman-era mosques, sharing streets with Western-style boutiques and bars offering martinis and mojitos.

In Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, sidewalk vendors hawk the same wares outside the Saudi-built King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud Cultural Center, the largest of its kind in the Balkans.

The center — with its Saudi-style mosque — is run by Saudis with diplomatic status, adding to the discomfort of many Sarajevans unnerved by the Gulf-funded mosque-building and Arab property investments such as the Hotel Bristol, where alcohol is banned.

“I try not to have any contact with these radical people in mosques or elsewhere,” said Adnan Talic, 54, a cobbler whose tiny shop in Sarajevo’s centuries-old Ottoman market is thick with the sweet scent of newly tanned leather. “We are afraid of them, but ignoring them is my way of fighting radical Islam.”

Several men in Gorjna Maoca denied any ties between the village and violent groups.

“We are good Muslims. We are true believers, and just as we don’t want anything bad to happen to us, we don’t want anything bad for anyone else,” said a bearded, skullcapped man working in his driveway. Like the others, he declined to give his name during a recent visit by McClatchy.

“More attention is being given to the way we look than is warranted. More attention was given by the media to that flag, and it represented nothing. Maybe the children put it there,” the man replied when asked about the display of the Islamic State flag, pictures of which were published by local media.

Current and former Bosnian security officials tell a different story, saying the hamlet is linked to extremist networks that run from Western Europe through the Balkans into the Middle East.

More than a dozen men associated with the village are among the Bosnians who’ve gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, they said. One of them, Emrah Fojnica, 23, blew himself up last August, killing 23 people in Baghdad. In 2011, the settlement hosted a Muslim from Serbia who’s now serving an 18-year jail term for spraying more than 100 bullets at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.

Possible U.S. ties to the extremist networks were highlighted in February, when a federal grand jury in Kentucky indicted six Bosnian immigrants on charges of sending money, military uniforms, combat boots and other military goods to Bosnians fighting in Syria and Iraq.

Political analysts, moderate clerics and other experts in Bosnia and Kosovo blame senior political and religious leaders, charging they ignored the creeping extremism for years. The leaders were happy to let Islamist charities reconstruct war-damaged mosques, build new ones, and provide aid and educational programs in return for devotion to their brands of Islam.

The few Bosnians who spoke out were publicly denounced by some political and religious leaders as “Islamophobes,” said Senad Pecanin, a co-founder of Dani, a crusading investigative magazine that he left in 2010 to practice law. “For years they were attacking anyone who was warning about the threat.”

In Kosovo, moderate clerics and political experts charged that the official Islamic Community, the independent body that oversees Islamic affairs, had been taken over by conservatives who’ve been replacing moderate imams with fundamentalists in a bid to appease radical elements and ensure continued financial support from the Middle East.

“I saw that I couldn’t get help from anyone, from the government, from the Islamic Community,” said Musli Verbani, 49, a moderate cleric whose car was fire-bombed in 2006 in what he charged was an intimidation campaign that led to his 2011 replacement by a hard-liner as imam of the main mosque in the southern Kosovo town of Kacanik.

Vedat Sahiti, an adviser to Kosovo’s chief Islamic cleric, Naim Ternava, denied that the Islamic Community had succumbed to Islamist influence and said the organization didn’t accept foreign aid.

“We don’t take money from the Middle East,” said Sahiti, shortly before proudly pronouncing that the organization’s new headquarters and seminary were built with funds from the Saudi and Qatari governments.
Critics noted that 15 clerics, including the then-grand mufti of Pristina’s main mosque, were among 55 people detained in August and September crackdowns for allegedly promoting violent extremism and recruiting fighters for Syria and Iraq.

Shpend Kursani, a senior researcher at the Kosovar Center for Security Studies, a policy institute in Pristina, said the crackdowns last year had slowed the flight of young men to Syria and Iraq but that now he was seeing whole families going.

As part of an in-depth study, Kursani has been interviewing young Kosovars who’ve returned from Syria and Iraq. One has a master’s degree in international relations, while 37 percent had police records before they embraced radical Islam, he said.

What they all shared, he said, was little hope of a better future and bitter disillusionment with the corruption and nepotism that infect all levels of Kosovo’s political system. Even the anti-corruption mission in Kosovo run by the European Union is under investigation on suspicion of corruption.

Another factor contributing to radicalization, experts and officials said, is that many Kosovars feel betrayed and isolated by the West.

The country’s 2008 declaration of independence still hasn’t been recognized by the United Nations or all 28 EU members, making Kosovo the only Balkan country whose citizens need visas to travel to EU countries. They can, however, travel without visas to nearby Turkey, the crossing point to fight in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Serbia refuses to renounce its claim to its former province, and it continues to exert enormous political influence through Kosovo’s tiny Serbian minority and its representatives in the legislature.

“We have all the elements of a failed state,” said Kursani. “The state cannot provide security to its citizens.”

(c)2015 McClatchy Washington Bureau, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: An elderly woman begs on the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, Europe’s poorest country. (Jonathan Landay/McClatchy/TNS)