The tattoos were a tell-tale sign. So were the black t-shirts, baseball caps, Oakley shades and bird-nest beards. But it was those dark jags of ink splayed over tanned forearms that really screamed soldiers of fortune. This group of hired guns had strapped in beside me aboard a Lockheed C-130 transport plane, en route to southern Afghanistan's restive Helmand province. The men were mostly silent as the plane took off, with occasional head bobs to adjust the keffiyehs neatly tucked under their chins. On their laps rested German-engineered MP-5 long guns. On mine, a grey notebook and a small camera.
It was the summer of 2011, one of the deadliest years for Americans in a long war brought on the attacks nearly 7,000 miles away in Manhattan, Washington DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. After nearly a decade of fighting, the Taliban was steadily gaining ground. More than 400 coalition soldiers had already died in a rash of ambush assaults and roadside bombs. And so we had all chosen to fly rather than drive to our destination: Camp Leatherneck, then the largest US Marine Corps base in the world.
At Leatherneck, I ate with newly deployed Marines, slept in their tents, and traveled out to their forward operating bases. "Where were you on September 11th?" I'd ask, the 10-year anniversary of that day approaching. "I was 10-years-old," said a young Marylander, who declined to give his name on account of what seemed a natural skittishness. "I was in the 5th grade… it was first period."
Shy, almost innocent-looking, he was nothing like the motley crew I had flown in with. There was a nervousness that enveloped him, as well as the others his age. No tattoos. No bravado. And no real conception of the world into which he had stepped.
Though the violence in Afghanistan had gotten worse, many of us back in the States seemed to think the war was winding down, particularly after US forces killed Osama Bin Laden in the spring of 2011, and President Obama announced a major drawdown of troops a month later. CNN, my employer, no longer kept a full-time bureau operating in country. Coverage was coordinated from across the border, in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital. Afghanistan already seemed to have become America's latest forgotten war.
For several months, I reported on the NATO drawdown and hand-over of power to local forces, who were clearly incapable of maintaining control by themselves. A hydra of insurgent groups, from the Afghan Taliban to the Haqqani network and other local warlords, had emerged from the shadows to fill the void. Meanwhile, though the Americans said they planned to leave, tens of billions of US dollars were still flowing into the country, often with little oversight.
That was eight years ago. American troops are still in Afghanistan. Kids born after 9/11 are fighting there now. The US-backed government barely holds half the country, and the Taliban controls more territory than at any point since 2001. Peace talks between the US and the Taliban that were meant to have a dramatic conclusion this week have fallen apart, throwing the future of Afghanistan into a fresh, if familiar, uncertainty.
As we mark the 18th anniversary of the attacks that led to the US invasion in the first place, I think about those young US Marines I met back at Leatherneck, across from those dusty barracks in Helmand province. Did they survive? Roughly 2,400 Americans didn't. Did they return home? Or are they plying the lucrative, dangerous trade of private security contractors over there? By now they could well be battle-hardened fighters themselves, in black t-shirts, keffiyehs, arms all inked up too.I had met them while covering the supposed end of a war that still has not ended.
There is a well-trodden escape route out of North Korea. It is both illegal and daunting, rife with unscrupulous human traffickers and hounded by heavily-armed soldiers. But over the decades, thousands of North Korean defectors have made the dangerous trip, which leads across the Yalu River and into China. From there, clandestine assistance networks and charities help them to make the trek further north into Mongolia. If they get there, they stand a chance of moving on to seek asylum in free countries elsewhere in the world.
But if they are caught in China, they are typically returned home to face imprisonment and torture. Recently, the Chinese government of President Xi Jinping – who visits North Korea today -- has moved to crack down harder on the safe houses that aid these asylum-seekers, according to rights groups and recent Reuters reporting.Here is one story of a defector who, despite near unfathomable hardships, managed to escape. Yeonmi Park says she survived the great famine of the 1990s by foraging for grasshoppers and dragonflies, before being subject to human trafficking in China. Today she is a human rights activist living in Chicago. How she got from there to here is the story of a lifetime. And it's the subject of a special edition of GZERO World.
If there's one thing the Brits, the Russkies and the Yanks have all learned over the years, it's this: Being a superpower is hard. After all, it means not only projecting military, economic and cultural influence well beyond your borders, but also doing it in different parts of the world at the same time. Very few countries have been able to pull that off throughout history. And right now, the US is the only one that fits the bill in every category.
Still, being a superpower ain't what it used to be.
It was once all about armies, alliances and soft power, from diplomatic pirouettes to the strategic use of foreign aid. Those things still matter, sure, but world powers now require an extra set of tools that are both very different and accessible to a far wider range of people. When the term was first coined by a Yale Professor in the 1940s, few were pondering the ways big data, artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, social media, and machine learning would affect the global balance of power.
Today, it's a different game.
And if there's one country with the means to play, it's China. Beijing has staked its own claim to global power in large part on dominating artificial intelligence by 2030, the year its economy is set to become the world's largest. Its mounting array of cyber tools and its lead on the 5G race could give it the edge it needs. What's more, with a $1.3 trillion dollar plan to build infrastructure across the globe, and massive investments in naval expansion, China certainly looks like it's getting ready to stake a fresh claim to global superpowerdom.
Still, if this is to be the "Chinese century," as The Economist predicts, a looming unknown remains: What kind of power does Beijing actually want? And what will it mean for the world if, for the first time in modern history, a superpower with the largest economy on earth is an authoritarian one-party surveillance state?
For now, China is still in many ways a regional power of Asia – but as President Xi Jinping eyes the prize of putting his country "at the center of the world stage," the answers to these questions will be a driving force behind how much of the world's future societies function.
And they are also precisely the focus of this week's show on GZERO World with Ian Bremmer.
As many as one million plant and animal species are being threatened with extinction as a result of human activity. That is the conclusion of a sweeping 1,500 page United Nations assessment, according to an early summary of the report released Monday. The report forecasts a staggering loss of biodiversity brought on by pollution, loss of habitat, invasive species and climate change. It also projects "grave impacts on people around the world (as a result of the change) are now likely." Ian Bremmer spoke with a man who says the consequences are actually far more dire than most people realize. And yet David Wallace-Wells, author of "The Uninhabitable Earth," also offers a bit of hope.
The West Bank is a 2,180-square-mile patch of landlocked territory home to 2.6 million Palestinians and more than half a million Israeli settlers. Recurring conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has left the territory's fate up for grabs, though Israel has had de facto control over much of the West Bank for decades. The use of the term "Palestinian Territories" refers to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a small piece of land bordering Egypt over which Palestinians also have semi-autonomous control. Two competing governments claim to speak for the Palestinian people, one in the West Bank and the other in Gaza. In 2012, the UN General Assembly voted to grant Palestine "non-member observer" status, though the Palestinian quest for autonomy and a "two-state solution," whereby an independent State of Palestine resides alongside the State of Israel, has been undercut by unresolved questions regarding borders, refugees, security and the city of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.
GZERO interviews Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó.
It once seemed so encouraging for Venezuela's political opposition: Millions in the streets. Strong international support. An unpopular autocrat seemingly on the ropes. But what a difference a month can make.
In early March, Juan Guaidó — the man recognized by dozens of countries as Venezuela's interim president — returned home to cheering crowds. He had been abroad for almost two weeks, currying favor with other regional governments, and trying to get much–needed humanitarian aid to his countrymen.
But in the days since then, little has changed. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro remains in power, despite having overseen one of the most staggering economic collapses in modern history.
Guaidó's overtures to the military to drop their support for Maduro have had little effect — only an estimated 1,000 soldiers and national police have defected, despite huge protests, growing sanctions pressure, and the whispered threat of US military action. The top brass remains loyal to Maduro.
In fact, after a few weeks of mostly ignoring Mr. Guaidó, Venezuelan authorities have quietly ratcheted up pressure of their own. Earlier this week, in a pre-dawn raid, the intelligence services detained Mr. Guaidó's chief of staff at his home, raising the possibility that the government may be closing in on Mr. Guaidó himself.
With relatively few tangible gains to show recently, what is Guaidós plan? Is he open to US military intervention? What would a realistic transition look like?
He sits down with us to answer these very questions. Watch the interview here.