Edited by Sam Thielman
LONGTIME FOREVER WARS READERS will remember our continuing coverage of a recently freed Guantanamo Bay prisoner named Majid Khan. When Majid delivered an October 2021 statement from the Guantanamo courtroom, summarizing his experience within the CIA black-site torture chambers, FOREVER WARS called it "one of the most horrific accounts of the entire 20-year War on Terror."
When I wrote that, I didn't realize the statement was only scratching the surface.
Over the past year, I've gotten to know much more about Majid's story. Attentive readers will remember me referencing a reporting trip to an unspecified destination in late December and early January. Now I can reveal that I was visiting Majid in Belize, his new home country, which took him in when others would not. And I wasn't just visiting Majid. I was also learning the extraordinary story of Majid's father, Ali Khan.
Their stories, together—overlapping, contrasting and always interconnected—form the basis of what I am proud to announce is my second book, titled THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN, to be published in the coming years by Penguin. Each word in that title is chosen deliberately. You'll learn why when the book is published.
I can't stress enough how excited—how determined—I am to write this book. I believed in the story I told in REIGN OF TERROR. But crafting that book came with high degrees of anxiety. I didn't know how to write a book before REIGN, and for long stretches of the book I feared and dreaded writing it. From October 2019 to February 2020 I didn't work on it at all. I was drowning in daily journalism for The Daily Beast that I used as an excuse, day after day for four months, not to write REIGN. A 120-day hiatus in the face of a creeping deadline only compounds the anxiety of returning to work—and it was work on a project I was uncertain if I could pull off. Then I had to finish writing a depressing book as the world fell apart during COVID and there was an insurrection to stop a lawful election from seating the next president.
Writing this book is not the same as writing that book.
I will have hard days writing THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN. But I know now that I can write a book. I know what bad habits in my writing routines I have to mitigate and I know how to mitigate them. Most importantly, I have embraced a writing concept that I evangelize to everyone who asks me about writing: Let the first draft be bad.
When I wrote REIGN, especially the middle chapters, I harbored an unarticulated, amateurish expectation that what emerged had to be perfect from the start. That is a bad way to write a book, and by bad I mean counterproductive. But the other half of my approach to REIGN was highly productive. I took absolutely everything I thought I needed for each chapter and wrote it in. Then, seeing what didn't work, I edited each chapter until it was half its original length. The first draft was a time-consuming process that I compared to buying a lot of marble; the second draft would be the sculpture. Together, those two approaches taught me to accept that the purpose of a first draft isn't to be good. It's to array everything you need on the page, so you can see what works, what doesn't, what's a fruitful path and what's a blind alley.
THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN is a War on Terror story. But it's much, much different than REIGN OF TERROR. REIGN OF TERROR was a work of synthesis in the service of an explanatory narrative for something between journalism and contemporary history. THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN is the story of two people, one in his forties and the other in his seventies, over the course of their lives, a work of narrative nonfiction. I've written countless profiles in journalism, but I've never done anything like this before. It's ambitious and challenging. And I've reached the point in my career as a journalist and an author where I'm ready for something this ambitious and this challenging. You're going to see a different writing style from me in this book. I can't tell this story in the voice I used for REIGN, or in the one I used for WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, or the voices I use for this newsletter or in my Nation column.
I believe very strongly in the importance of the story that THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN will tell. I'm grateful that Penguin, and especially my editor Helen Rouner, sees the vision and the mission of this book. My job now is to make this book as urgent, vibrant, caustic, vivid and resonant as the story it proposes to tell. And it's not just that I can't wait to get started. I've gotten started.
WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THIS NEWSLETTER? FOREVER WARS isn't going on hiatus, that's for sure. Writing REIGN OF TERROR while reporting for The Daily Beast was harder than writing THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN is while producing this newsletter.
This is the 12th edition of FOREVER WARS in January 2024, which is to say the 12th edition since I returned from my time with Majid and Ali. I wrote a lot because events germane to this newsletter kept accumulating, and you, the FOREVER WARS subscriber, have invested in me your money and your trust to cover those events. And the way I work, when I drill into a particular topic, it helps me see connections to others, or gives me ideas for how to approach subjects that are tangentially related and even unrelated. It also helps me work through knots that my other work may be tangled into. That's a way of saying that I see THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN and FOREVER WARS as mutually reinforcing.
But there are likely going to be times ahead when this newsletter will publish one edition a week, rather than the two or (as with last week) three that I've been producing, and might even skip a week sometimes. It's also likely going to mean that pieces like this one, pieces that look at the human impact of U.S. conflicts that get little coverage, are likely going to fall away for awhile. There is a cascading, U.S.-involved war in the Middle East right now, and FOREVER WARS will continue to cover it in the ways you're accustomed to seeing—ways that I think are unlike how most of the American media cover it. The pace of publication, at times, may have to slow down to accommodate my ambitions—and my contract—for THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN. But at times the pace of publication will also ramp up, both as events necessitate and because sometimes I need to work out different muscles than the ones that will do the heavy lifting for this book.
Your trust and your money are things I take seriously. You owe me nothing. It's my job to provide you with something valuable enough to warrant your time, attention and income, particularly given that I cover ugly and difficult topics. I may ask for your patience with this newsletter in the months ahead. But I want FOREVER WARS to continue growing during the time it will take me to finish THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN. And I want you—and your friends, your families, your co-workers, everyone—along for the ride on the newsletter and this new book. Please continue to support FOREVER WARS. (If you already subscribe, thank you so much!)
A quick final note: Some of you will ask how you can pre-order THE TORTURE AND DELIVERANCE OF MAJID KHAN. The time isn't right for that. Rest assured that as soon as we have a preorder mechanism, I will be putting it in every edition of FOREVER WARS until the book is out, and once it is, this newsletter will aggressively hawk the book. In the meantime, the best way to support the book is to support this newsletter—and to buy REIGN OF TERROR, and the collected edition of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM (in stores tomorrow!), and a signed set of all four issues of WVW, exclusively available from Brooklyn's finest, Bulletproof Comics, while supplies last.
AS YOU'LL HAVE SEEN BY NOW, Iran-backed militias killed three U.S. troops and wounded 34 others in a drone strike on a Jordanian base used by the U.S., Tower 22, near the Syrian border, where some 350 U.S. troops operated in obscurity until now. (Per the last White House notification to Congress about the deployments of U.S. troops in service of the War on Terror, from June, there are about 3,000 in Jordan.) These three are not the first U.S. casualties in the Middle Eastern war that began in the wake of October 7. But the political reality of the situation is that the attack makes it far likelier that President Biden escalates rather than deescalates, despite having dispatched CIA Director Bill Burns to Paris to work on a prolonged-ceasefire-for-hostages deal.
To be clear, escalation is already happening; that escalation resulted in this attack; and further escalation will yield only more death, not victory. It will also be a choice Biden makes, not an inevitability. But there is already the typical braying for Biden to strike not only the militias but Iran—an escalation that will mean a great-power war will formally kick off, all around the region and perhaps even beyond. Biden is vowing retaliation. The contours of that retaliation are as yet undetermined.
Watch how the MAGA posture of foreign-policy restraint melts on first contact with an opportunity to attack Iran, the great white whale of the War on Terror. "The only answer to these attacks must be devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East. Anything less will confirm Joe Biden as a coward unworthy of being commander in chief," said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), last seen urging Donald Trump to use the military on protesters fighting structural racism.
Notice how there's no "and then what" imagined for the inevitable Iranian retaliation, just a tacit expectation of easy victory. If you thought the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were agonizing and futile, wait until the U.S. finds itself in a formal war "in Iran and across the Middle East." The deaths of the servicemembers are part of why I keep writing that this war must be actively ended, since without affirmative efforts at stopping it, all the pressures push toward escalation.
Don’t take it from me, take it from this member of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, a united front of Iranian-supported militias, who told the Washington Post: “As we said before, if the U.S. keeps supporting Israel, there will be escalations. All the U.S. interests in the region are legitimate targets and we don’t care about U.S. threats to respond, we know the direction we are taking and martyrdom is our prize."
IN THE WAKE OF the International Court of Justice's interim finding that Israel is plausibly committing acts of genocide, the Israelis charged that a dozen members of the U.N.'s Palestinian-refugee assistance agency UNRWA—the only real means of assistance for two million Palestinians in Gaza and a perennial rhetorical and bureaucratic target for Israel and its allies—were involved in the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre. The U.N. fired nine of the accused and plans an inquiry, but several of UNRWA's major donors have suspended funding—among them the U.S., UNRWA's largest donor, the U.K., Germany, Australia, Canada, Finland and Italy. If my math is right, this represents a loss of $683 million of UNRWA’s $1.17 billion budget. (Figures are for 2022 UNRWA funding pledges, since they were the most recent I could find.) U.N. Secretary General António Guterres is pleading with them to reconsider given the dire state of besiegement and slaughter that the Israelis have placed the Palestinians in.
UNRWA has 13,000 employees in Gaza alone, making it perhaps Gaza's largest employer, in addition to being a critical source of shelter for Gazans, particularly now with Israel demolishing homes on an industrial scale. Francesca Albanese, the U.N. special rapporteur on Palestine, tweeted that the suspension of funding amounts to the donors "collectively punishing millions of Palestinians at the most critical time, and most likely violating their obligations under the Genocide Convention."
It can't escape notice that one of the orders of the ICJ—one that the Israeli jurist Aharon Barak voted to join—was for Israel to permit greater humanitarian aid into Gaza. Crippling UNRWA flies directly in the face of that order. Biden now joins Donald Trump in canceling funding for UNRWA, except Trump never bothered to gesture at the humanity of Palestinians.
DUE TO AN ERROR OF MINE, our last newsletter edition, about the ICJ interim ruling, wrote "the International Criminal Court" at one point instead of "the International Court of Justice." That's been fixed on the online edition, but we can't fix it in a newsletter we blasted out to your inbox. FOREVER WARS regrets the error.
NANCY PELOSI (D-CALIF.), URGED THE FBI to investigate pro-Palestinian demonstrators and accused them of being Russian dupes. I suppose that's now where the partisan divide over Gaza is to be found: the Republicans accuse the anti-genocide faction of being puppetted by "the woke agenda"; the Democrats accuse the anti-genocide faction of being puppetted by Russia. The PATRIOT Act is agnostic on the distinction.