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Tools of War

The dramatic if quite abstract GIF in the header to this post tracks the rapid return of the Taliban to power as a drawdown of the Forever War. It echoes a sense of loss–a ceding of territory, echoing the “loss” of Korea, China, or Vietnam–as if it were the never imagined conclusion to the War on Terror. It is perhaps just a pivot to an unknown future, where that war will no longer be fought in terms of a map of Afghanistan. But the GIF dramatically collapses the past four years as they unravelled over the months from May to April 13 to August 16, 2021; if it is only one of the several theaters of war, it seems to offer a compelling, if distorting story of a fall of provincial provinces in the state that the United States and NATO committed to rebuilt from 2008, a loss that seems to ratchet up one’s sense of a lost opportunity. The failure to compel Afghanistan to present Osama bin Laden and Taliban officers or training camps led to a huge show of power to render the submission of Afghanistan by bloody bombing campaigns, drone strikes, and military incursions; the loss of what we imagine territory held by our troops seems almost to cleanse the bloodiness of that past history. The advance of the Taliban into areas allegedly once in “government control” offer a wash of deep crimson across the country as the tragic end of the War on Terror, something of a blood bath in the making, a spurt of pink and deep crimson red–as if the bloodshed was not cast by an American show of power.

But the arrival of bloodshed to Afghanistan was something that the United States, of course, brought there on a scale no one had ever before imagined, flooding the nation with arms of a level of modernity as if they would defeat the society we had once called ‘tribal’ and incapable of tactical maneuvering or high-tech weaponry. As the United States assures we are As the area under “Government Control” contracts to an isolated the limited area, leaving us asking how the United States mapped it so badly. As the Government four Presidents promoted military ties contracts to a dot, but the dream of such an independent state now apparently eclipsed and recast into what may now seem more of an inter-regnum of two rulers–Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani–in a Taliban regime. Rather than being cast as a restoration of power, the map illustrated to Americans the fall of an American dream, and an eclipse of the idea of nation-building as a primarily military prospect, that the US Army took over from NATO. The hope to recreate firm borders of Afghanistan at untold expense fell like a house of cards. The Taliban’s strategic operations for controlling the very roads on which they once attacked American and NATO forces, and paralyzing the country’s movement and flexibility of its soldiers or national infrastructure.

The fiction that was long nourished of an Afghan state that America had been able to try to fortify by the importing armaments–the “tools of war”–over more than twenty years. While the map is a visualization that derives from the work of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and poses as a vision charting the erosion or loss of the coherence of a liberal state in the borders of Afghanistan, it both isolates the nation from its broader context in the Middle East and War on Terror–from the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) in Qatar, from the allies of Taliban in Pakistan and elsewhere, or the exit of many Afghan forces as refugees, or the seizure of weapons, humvees, and armored vehicles abandoned by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) who left them behind as they fled north across the border or abandoned their posts. A map of the arrival of firearms and materiel–the procurement of Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Assistance (IMET) programs that American Presidents are authorized, and with Donald Trump escalated and Barack Obama had previously–would be as helpful, as it would track a vision of a significant increase of security assistance for geopolitical dominance.

Finally revealed: UK drone strikes in Afghanistan by province – Drone Wars  UK
UK Drone Strikes in Afghanistan
Heat htTableaux Heat map of Drone Strikes in Afghanistan by Amderican Military under Presidents Bush, Obmaa, Trump tps://dronewars.github.io/narrative/Map of Drone Strikes in Afghanistan by American Military, Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump (2018)
DRONE WARS | Narrative
Total Drone Strikes in Afghanistan and Somalia by Presidents Bush, Obama, and Trump

The investment in drone escalation as a tactical relation to “space” redefined territorial dominance to replace one of community building, often confusing targets with the territory. Drone strikes not only served to “take out terrorist commanders”–but as if this did not destroy the stability of the fabric of a nation America was allegedly trying to rebuild since 2008–defined a view far from the ground. Over 13,000 drone strikes on Afghanistan alone–a minimum of 13,072 strikes killed in Afghanistan alone over 10,000–conducted by the United States Reconnaissance created a landscape being invaded by foreign powers. The dynamic of incessant drone strikes–conducted by a tool not owned by the U.S. military before the Forever Wars, and now showcased in targeted strikes is an invaluable prism to understand the mapping of the land that appears a hope for peace and end to the Forever Wars, as much as a lack of training, strategy, or American assistance. In ways that make drone strike fatalities pale, the recent estimate of 46,310 Afghan civilians–if below half of the estimated 95,000 dead Syrian civilian casualties of the War on Terror–suggests the way that the United States has benefited form the low presence of reporters on the ground.

The war in Afghanistan was located predominantly in the countryside, and across the many provinces that “fell” to a Taliban newly fortified by the windfall of armaments they accumulated as provincial cities, abandoned by the AFSN, fell. The logic that we had supplied the ANSF with sufficient arms to defend the territory reveals a confusion between the territory and the map–and the theater of combat and the situation on the ground. When Joe Biden marveled at how American-trained Afghan security forces Americans out-numbered Taliban fighters fourfold, and possessed better arms, the 298,000 armed ANSF were thinly spread and at low morale; if trained and armed by Americans, perhaps amounting to but 96,000, they lacked decisive advantage against Taliban force of 60-80,000 whose leaders effectively exploited internal weaknesses off the battlefield.

The real map–or the inside story of the progress of the Taliban across the nation–lay the perhaps not control over districts’ capitols, but the many well-stocked bases, airfields, and army depots long cultivated by American troops. The long-running bases across the country–sites with often mythic and storied names, like Kandahar and Bagram airfield, where tens of thousands of United States soldiers had been stationed from 2001–had posed a site of immense military materiel that the . The Bagram Airfield was a site for drones, of course, but also for storing cutting edge Blackhawk helicopters that the United States committed to Afghan forces, even if they were not well-trained in using or maintaining them, munitions, and firearms, even if the larger American aircraft and drones were withdrawn. As American forces withdrew, the rifles, ammunition, and tactical vehicles–as well as cars–were left at bases that the Taliban had long attacked–as Bagram—and had their eyes and were particularly keen. American commanders, as if intending to disrupt the withdrawal’s smoothness, disrupted the smooth transition by not even telling Afghans before they arrived at the Kabul airport–allowing the looting of laptops from Bagram, as a sort of bonanza, by local residents, before the arrival of Taliban forces. Over three million items were abandoned in Bagram, from food to small weapons, ammunition, and vehicles–as if presuming that the “tribal” Taliban did not know how to use them, or not caring, before they down-powered the entire base–doubting that they could ever operate them. As ammunition for weapons not being left for the AFSN was destroyed, the abandonment of materiel, planes, helicopters and ground vehicles followed departure from ten other bases before Biden took office, often over NATO objections–that bestowed a huge symbolic victory of sorts to the Taliban of having driven foreigners from the land as they long promised, if not one of military materiel as wall. If American military argued “They can look at them, they can walk around — but they can’t fly them. They can’t operate them,” the ludic inversion of Taliban displaying armaments of Americans was profound theater of deep symbolic capital.

Taliban forces celebrate the withdrawal of US forces in Kandahar.
Taliban Forces Celebrate American Withdrawal from Kanadahar

If the hundreds of bases that Americans sent soldiers had long declined to dozens, the withdrawal of American forces without clear coordination with Afghans left a vast reserve of symbolic military material ready for the taking. How much was left at the bases closed in Helmand province, Laghman province, or Kunduz, as well as the bases in Nangahar, Balkh, Faryab and Zabul? Did these sites, and the reduction of American presence in Jalalabad Air Field, Kandahar Air Field, and Bagram not provide targets on which the Taliban long had eyes? The seizure of Kandahar provided an occasion for a triumphal procession of sorts, showcasing armored vehicles, as Blackhawk helicopters flying the Taliban flag flew in the skies overhead. In a poor country, the large prizes of American bases stood out like centers of wealth inequality, stocked with energy drinks, full meals, medical care and other amenities, and stockades were impossible to fully empty as the American bases closed from 2020.

Sites Supported by United States Military in Afghanistan, 2006/Globalsecurity.org

Few gave credence to Taliban boasts 1,533 ANSF joined the Taliban by May, or that June saw another 1,300 surrender, but the numbers of deserters only grew, expanding “contested” areas where Government forces lost ground without a fight. All of this crucial information is absent from the map, but we still believe, despite all we might have learned from Tolstoy, that generals and strategists determine the state of play on a battlefield, without knowing how the war was waged, or that the war was never seen as geopolitical–as it was waged–but across borders and rooted much more locally on the ground, as Taliban entered sites of former bases, and amassed arms caches in a drive of increasing momentum to Kabul–one of the only areas that wasn’t bombed so intensively, hoping it would be a reprieve from the violent bombed out landscapes on the ground.

For a war that was long pursued remotely, the image of territorial “loss” obscured the failure of engineering a transition to democracy. We have already begun debating the extent to which an executive decision-making shouldered full responsibility for the folding of the government of Afghanistan that followed the withdrawal of United States soldiers. –and air cover. We like to imagine that an American President has continued to steer global dialogue about the Afghanistan War, the remainder and reduced proxy of the War on Terror. Perhaps it is that we have a hard time to imagine a sense of an ending, and loose the ability to imagine one, and have lost any sense of a conclusion to the War on Terror that was long cast as a “just war,” against evil, and in terms of a dichotomy between good and bad, as if to disguise its protracted disaster. If we could never “see” the results of a an end to the War on Terror, Orwellianly, we were told it was not endless–Americans must have patience, said President George W. Bush as he promised us he had, to pursue a simple, conclusive, and final end to terrorism, assuring us the war would not, appearances to the contrary, grow open-ended, with a “mission creep” even greater than the Vietnam War. Barack Obama, after he presided over the military surge, hoped to “turn the page” on it in 2016. But any “exit” receded, and may not even be able to be dated 2021–as we imagine–but more protracted and indefinite than resolute–as Barack Obama, who presided over the military “surge”–hoped to “turn the page” and wind down by 2016. The logic of the war grew, as if deriving from Bush’s refusal to negotiate as was requested after the eight day of the bombing campaign, or move Osama bin Laden to a third country, but employ military might to force destruction of the camps of the Taliban, and delivery of all Taliban, fixating on the Taliban escalated the war far as an American struggle, far beyond attention to the situation on the ground.

The nightmarish reversion of Afghan territories was seen as the culmination of the withdrawal of American troops at large levels, almost achieved by President Obama in 2016, after the heights of the first “Surge” in 20011, but which was delayed by President Trump. The war that refused to end or conclude was never seen as a protracted struggle–or presented as one–but it was, and perhaps because of this never had any end in sight. “This is not another Vietnam” was announced by the father of that President, President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Americans changed the organizational structure and leadership of Afghan troops with each U.S. President, making it hard to conclude or manage, shifting how Afghans were trained, that must have encouraged a sense of clientelism and corruption of which the Afghan government became increasingly accused–and perhaps introducing a lingering suspicion of corruption and clientelism, more than bringing anything like a modern fighting army or New Model Army. There was never a sense of refusing to leave for fear that the failure that the maps depicted of the collapse of all districts of the new “Afghanistan” depended on continued American investment and support to endure.

Although the rapid reversion of districts to Taliban is far more likely to remain perceived by Republicans as a fiasco in leadership, the poor state of the country and ineffectiveness to work with the increased military materiel it was provided as if the army members did not have to be motivated and organized. The impossibility of mapping the geopolitical interests America felt onto the Security Forces–Lt. General William Caldwell IV reflected Defense Dept. opinion in the military when he assured the world Afghanistan National Security Forces were effective and trained, in fact “probably the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led of any forces we’ve developed yet inside of Afghanistan,” by June 2011, after a decade of military training, and only able to get better, even if American Generals were clear they would tolerate a degree of chaos, and didn’t want Afghans to be defining priorities, but only to instill a “particular kind of stability“: by 2016, National Security officials openly worried about the lack of any metrics–levels of violence, control over territory, or Taliban attacks that presented or projected confidence. The distrust, missed assessment and mutual mis-communications between American Generals who promoted and mistrusted Afghan troops whose efficiency they promoted created a disconnect between Americans as they downplayed the military ability of the Taliban, regarded as lacking sufficient air capacity or military prowess to command the nation or pose a threat to the Afghan Security Forces who folded before the Taliban’s military and threats of reprisals.

Is it possible to trace a transfer of military technologies and armaments in the twenty years since the crashing of airplanes into the Twin Towers by jihadist militants and the appropriation of sophisticated arms, night-goggles and humvees of members of the same Taliban who now occupy Baghdad? At the same time as American purchasers of handguns and firearms grew, the transfers of weapons and military firearms to the Afghan areas–UAE; Saudi Arabia; and especially Qatar–in a massive transfer of military technology that paralleled the emergence of the very groups cast as primitive rebels who had commandeered aircrafts to strike the Twin Towers into an efficient user of enhanced military tools and technologies, rather than the primitives who occupied the outer peripheries, but were both trained and prepared to occupy a nation’s center in disarmingly modern ways. Although the image of the plans flying into the Twin Towers presented an image of modernity versus premodernity, a lens through which the protracted war was pursued, as we cast the Taliban as “tribal,” and drove the Taliban into the opium production business, selling “modern” weapons and military tools into Afghanistan, the dichotomy of modern and primitive failed to present anything like a proper lens to pursue the war, although it was one American military had adopted on cue from an American President who had promised a “crusade” in no uncertain terms.

9/11

Perhaps the story of the War on Terror, in both its Afghanistan chapter and in other ways, demands to be written, when it is, as a massive transformation from the perspective of a shift of military engagement on the ground, and the military experience of the soldier, or what John Keegan called “the face of battle,” rather than the grand narratives of a conflict of civilizations in which it was framed. If the experience and strategic outlook Keegan emphasized might well be expanded, following increased awareness, to the long-term psychological and physical costs to those who were fighting, the erosion and fraying of the sense of nation and national motivation for combat must be included in the history as well, but the shift in war experience of the soldier must have shifted far more dramatically for how the “sharp end of war” appeared for the generation of the Taliban who matured in a terrain where American weapons had increasingly arrived in abundance to become part of the landscape of the state, and might be understood in terms of the shifting eras of military engagement from being attacked by bombers, targeted by drones–none of which were owned by the U.S. Army before the war, a telling index of engagement that reflects the way the war was in fact pursued at its sharp face. While in America disdain candidate Obama showed for how his opponent thought the military operated by measuring might by its navy or air force–“we have these things called aircraft carriers . . .,” suggesting one might use cavalry or bayonets as metrics in the Presidential debates in condescending tones–the shifting theater of military engagement of the Taliban, from placement of IED devices to the mastery of roadways and local influence–more than the numbers of American soldiers on the ground.

From IED placement to suicide bombers, to rifles, kalashnikov, helicopters, and humvees, Taliban developed a new mastery of terrain, control of road networks for shipping materiel, to a n increasingly sophisticated tactical and performative use of arms and modern fighting tools that altered its experience and skill at the “sharp face of war” that we ignore, or attribute to outside assistance from Pakistani military, preferring to see the Taliban as primitive fighters without access to the technology America possesses and our provision of military “aid” as destined for “Security Forces” alone, rather than for a theater of war.

1. The current appeal of the clear mapping of the “fall” of Afghan districts to Taliban omits any senses of the line of battle. This is perhaps convenient for the military observers, who digest the war as it is pursued by American interests alone, even the NATO presence was increasingly defined in terms of the development of Afghan forces and democracy, although the “military alliance” shared by America and its Afghan ally is most often understood only in American terms. In mapping the “fall” of districts as if they were of purely strategic outposts in a geopolitical game, the map not only ignores the face of battle, but emblematizes the mis-mapping of American geopolitical interests onto Afghan interests. Despite the continued perhaps overzealous promotion of the skills of Afghan Security and the continued presence of American and NATO military failed to transition to Afghan Security Forces, even if we have continued to equip them with robust “tools of war,” without having trained them fully to fight our wars or to imagine their territorial mastery as anything like a strategic advantage for themselves.

Although the first elected President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was a friendly figure for Americans, trained in international relations and fond of Islamic philosophy, the promise invested in him as a “transitional figure” uniting “all Afghans” was better received by the British Queen and American President, Americans have been more concerned to map Afghan strategy as if it aligned with American interests, and a global war on terror, which Afghan Security Forces were deputized to adopt. We had long mapped the Taliban Resistance or “neo-Taliban” after the Taliban had been crushed as confined in the mountians, rather than in terms of its engagement with the “sharp face” of battle and its toll on both soldiers and the civilians who lived it. We saw the Taliban as an “insurgency” confined to the mountains as if these were the margins of the nation, and located them in Tribal grounds that were opposed to the vision of a central state–or as the inhabitants of a “Triangle of Terror” they had created.

File:Neotaliban insurgency 2002-2006 en.png
“Neo-Taliban Insurgency, 2002-6”
“Triangle of Terror”

In the images of Afghanistan’s “fall,” the “face of battle” is conveniently absent. In the visualizations of “district control” that were produced in the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy and reproduced across Western media, serving lambasted President Biden for some sort of dereliction of duty in concluding a forty-year old poorly thought out war? Democracy becomes something that the United States defends in these maps–or deputized Afghans to learn to defend–but the American President is suddenly seen as asleep at the wheel and not vigilant, the reverse of the image of a powerful Commander-in-Chief we desire, or the necessary and needed military “genius” who can strategically protect the national interests these visualizations reveal to have been tragically imperiled. And so we watch the “fall” of districts that had never gained independent unity, as if they failed to protect themselves from a theocratic opposition. We pretended that the failure was not the entry of increased materiel to the nation, but the global dismay at the levels of arms that are left in Afghanistan–more than are possessed by some NATO countries, and an unknown remainder of the $83 billion of materiel shipped to that nation–and the failure of Afghans to learn to use them against the Taliban, as if they were the exponents shaped by a Triangle of Terror, not affected by the shifting face of battle and “sharp edge” of war.

Increasingly, the promotion of the image of success in containing the Taliban that the U.S. Government promoted was doubted in the press, and seen as not an accurate reflection of the dominant role that the Taliban already had gained and controlled in Afghanistan, but which United States military assessments had rather dishonestly diminished, a scneario in which the maps of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracy provided a needed reality check as the true crowd-sourced story of the limited amount of control that the Afghan Government controlled. The extent to which the misleading military map by which the US government was seen as exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan was US government is exaggerating and misleading the public on Afghanistan reflected the more bracing judgements of the right-wing Long War Journal, which valued its ability to present a clear-eyed view of America’s strategic interests in an unvarnished or not sugar-coated geopolitical assessment that America needed in the Trump era, when the confidence in our own government declined.

We did not ever map the “sharp edge” of war, preferring to view the nation from above, either against a “Triangle of Terror” we sought to bomb and domesticize, or parsed into tribal affiliations that became the preferred means of translating Afghanistan to an American audience, which almost acknowledge the failed imperial fantasy to project Afghanistan as a nation with clear sovereign borders, or to define an objective for Afghan independence that is not backward-looking, and rooted in the cartographic attempts of Great Britain in the nineteenth century, translated into the crucial “buffer” function that might contain Pakistan, and stabilize Central Asia in a geopolitical struggle defined by the War on Terror, and not the situation on the ground, or how Americans altered that situation by their increasing military presence and profile. As the Taliban slowly gained ground over the years, and in which the logic of waging war as a protracted struggle had ceased to be worth the $6.4 trillion American taxpayers have invested in post-9/11 wars through FY2020, in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan–and the escalating future costs that the war would mean. As we have lost sight of the logic of continuing the “forever wars” into the Biden Presidency, and the vision of a “just war” has become clouded and polluted in the Trump yeas, we have lost site of any ability to imagine the ground plan for the resolution of the continuation of a War on Terror or imagine at what scale such a conclusion might ever occur.

To be sure, the advance of Taliban was not how we wanted to imagine it as a restoration of “normalcy” or a status quo, and a rejection of a theocratic government for a secular liberal ideal. But perhaps the image of Afghanistan as a liberal state was indeed a failed project, and it only existed in maps that had outlived their usefulness or reflection of the area on the ground. The “fall” of Afghanistan reflects the inability to contain the Taliban from the nation, and the weird blindness that America–and the American military and perhaps military intelligence–have to the effects of war on Afghanistan on the ground, wanting to believe in a clear chain of command, recognizable in other militaries, in the AFSN. The GIF seems to raise as many questions as it resolves of the fall of Afghanistan’s provinces to imagine what that ending looks like. As much as the number of districts that speedily negotiated a resolution of hostilities with the Taliban, the fall of Afghanistan and painful and deadly withdrawal from Kabul has been cast as the final cataclysmic episode of the War on Terror, as if President Joseph R. Biden–and Donald Trump before him–had already decided on a military withdrawal from the region was both long planned, and was indeed a means of cutting losses and leaving a region to re-dimension or re-scale the War on Terror that had been fought.

The mapping of the collapse of Afghan districts to the Taliban, cast as sudden and without any sense of occurrence, seem to justify the continuation of that war, but track the erosion of a territorial war, long morphed into a struggle whose aims are unclear. Maps that suggest a “country” of Afghanistan as land that was lost help us imagine that the authority of US forces might have trumped geography. And so we are retrospectively questioning the reporting of intelligence on the ground, trying to read the records of intelligence, or debate the false confidence projected by U.S. military through the final years of the campaign, as if this were an American decision, and a reflection of American global authority, as a microcosm of the image of the United States in the world theater, and seem to present the reassuring picture of a scenario of global politics in which wars are still fought on the ground, and which the loss of the War on Terror was not a failure of the American military, but the ceding of land by Afghans themselves who lacked ability or conviction to fight the war against theocracy that was largely scripted by American Presidents and military–who were unwilling to share their sense of their mission in Afghanistan with Afghan leaders, certain, as last as 2016, that Afghan “priorities are different from ours”–perhaps making it impossible for Afghans to take charge, as leadership of the nation was less of a gridded battlefield that became the dominant graphic that filtered, processed and mediated the withdrawal of American forces across the mainstream media.

In viewing a nation as a battlefield, we are not looking at the right map, or perhaps not looking at the right maps at all–or at the role that the arrival of military weapons played in the rendering “Afghanistan” all the more difficult to map. Perhaps the exportation of arms to the Middle East and to Afghanistan in the years since the nation’s invasion provides a better legend, and indeed a necessary legend, to map how control slipped out of the increasingly corrupt Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, established in 2004 after the United States as it assumed control of most of the country, which has been ceded–and destroyed–by the advance of the Taliban. The drawdown of troops in the country from the heights of the first surge under President Obama of 10,000 men and women has in fact been declining for years, but we have not noticed, or even looked closely at it. Yet the compelling nature of visualizations of “control” over individual districts by 2020 seemed a sudden loss of the nation, a progression of a fall of provinces culminating in the Taliban taking control over almost all of Afghanistan’s provinces, and entering Kabul, perhaps as Afghanistan seems a fitting theater or field for the master-trope of America’s imperial decline. Indeed, the attention in media maps to the delusion at an apparent absence of groundplan for American extrication or withdrawal.

These graphic visualizations are hardly accurate maps, but conveniently omit all information about the “sharp end” of battle, falling back on the geostrategic place of “control” over provinces–is this by the flags flying in their capitals? what is control in a war-torn area?–that can be understood as an element of a “Global War on Terror,” rather than the ways that the war was fought. As uncomfortable as such images might be, we prefer the “objective” GPS image “mapping” control, not pausing to ask what they miss or distort, or process the war in an episode on the War on Terror, or a lost field of battle for Afghan independence which it has long ceased to be.

The time-lapse visualization in the header to this post, of Afghan provinces shifting from “Government Control” or “Contested” to “Taliban Control” offers an image of dramatic impact, as if it were real-time, compelling as a tragic narrative, but erases the deep roots of the “lightning drive” of Taliban forces, fueled in large part both by absence of administrative unity and a massive uncoordinated influx and abandonment of arms–both left to Afghan Security forces or in caches. So strong was the flow of arms to Afghanistan and Qatar from the United States that the Biden administration only suspended arms contractors from delivering pending arms sales. Caches of arms left abandoned by Afghan Security Forces and, presumably, American military who had left them to be used by Government forces, not only destabilized the landscape of local government, but amplified a landscape by men with guns long fed by the over $40 billion contracts for firearms and ammunition flowing to the Middle East since 9/11. But if Biden assessed the Afghan Security Forces as being “as well-equipped as any army in the world” in contrast to the Taliban–and greatly outnumbering Taliban fighters–the long-term distrust of Afghan priorities and concerns left them with little sense of a common grounds for defense. As Americans were making similar assurances, Afghans were already fleeing in July to Tajikistan, where over a thousand Security Forces had already fled.

The arrival of the Taliban did not embody the victory of a theocratic to a secular regime that Americans have cast the War on Terror. The arrival of the Taliban as an armed infantry group, with its own modern military power, is an unwritten history, but was fueled by the arrival of an increased number of weapon that arrived in the region, and the transmission of military technologies across borders in ways that American governments could not perhaps imagine. Whether they were not exposed to the arrival of high tech arms of US manufacture in previous years or not, the idea that the arms that allowed Taliban members to arrive with speed in Kabul and negotiate a ready capitulation of districts, perhaps with Pakistani assistance, the seizure of of an unaccounted number of weapons caches turbocharged the advance to Kabul, in ways that not registered adequately in daunting images of the shift in districts to Taliban control. Such visualizations map a checkerboard of district that seem to track the government “control” of districts that image the erosion of a secular vision of Afghanistan. The division of Afghan lands into “districts” is almost a shorthand for the localism of Afghan politics, an admission of the difficulty of knitting together a secular state from into a centralized state, was never resolved by occupying forces or the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. More than confirm the alienation of ethnic groups from the vision of an allegedly secular government, inter-ethnic divisions have dramatically grown in the place of a coherent strategy for forging a multi-ethnic state, emblematized by an unknown CIA analysts’ map of circa 2017, that continued to map a nation bound by the red line of Afghanistan’s historical border–the “Durand” line, negotiated in the last decade of the nineteenth century–a conceit bisecting a region of Pashtun dominance and mountainous terrain that poses questions of Afghanistan’s ‘borders’ as much as it answers them. Was the retention of this imperial cartographic imaginary not suited for the sense that Afghanistan, as Samuel Moyn argued, offered a chance for the “last gaps if imperial nostalgia” in the post-Trump years, that was, improbably, able to play across the political spectrum?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cia-map-durand_line_border_between_afghanistan_and_pakistan-1.jpg
CIA Analyst’s Map of Afghanistan, Pashtun dominance in Blue “Tribal Belt” (CIA, c. 2007)

Is it possible that the among of weapons funneled into Qatar, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia that have disguised the cost of the War on Terror to some degree have created a huge concentration of arms in Afghanistan.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

If a rationale for the increased ability of Taliban members both to manipulate negotiations may lie in their attention to negotiations at Doha, their use military weapons may lie in the increased arrival of arms in the region. The escalation of imports and sales of arms to Afghanistan–many not registered or under the radar–escalated in the course of the Afghanistan War, and reflect a growing geopolitical significance that the nation was given to the United States, rather frighteningly similar to Vietnam, if the withdrawal from Afghanistan has been most focussed on as the greatest similarity between these two long wars, both fought at considerable hemispheric remove, only conceivable as they were logistically mapped by GPS. In both cases, wars were pursued across a complex and often oversimplified logistic chain, pursuing an elusive vision of global dominance or geopolitical strategy, whose obstacle appeared a lack of geopolitical “vision”: but was the presumption of a possibility of “global military dominance” that mismapped both military projects from a purely American point of view. The flattening of the effects of waging war only seems to have increased, paradoxically, as the geopolitical significance of Afghanistan overwhelmed the well-being of its residents, blotting it out, as the country modernized by force as it became a focus of the arms trade.

2. The investment of American taxpayers’ monies in the region was astounding, and hardly democratic, so much as a tantamount to a massive dereliction of national vision amidst the faulty reprioritization of mission creep that may be attributed as much to the military-industrial complex as to leadership or governance. Over half of all American foreign military financing arrived in Afghanistan directly by 2008, but aid had long flowed to Mujahideen and other insurgents through Pakistan, yet in later years billions of substantial materiel flowed via Qatar, location of the $1 billion CENTCOM headquarters where Americans coordinated all air operations in Afghanistan–a small nation that became the tenth largest importer of arms in the world, after South Korea, Iraq, United Arab Emirates, from 2015-19, largely from the United States, with contributions from France and Germany, jumping by 631% from 2010-14–becoming the eighth-largest market share in arms imports for 2016-2020 behind South Korea.

The absence of attention to the situation in the ground is nowhere more apparent than in the GIF that is the header to this post, which reveals the “fall” of Afghan districts to the Taliban from April, 2021. We map the hasty conclusion of the long war in GIF’s of districts, as in the header of this post, the flattening of a country that has been divided for over forty years, a form provided by the Long War Blog. The division of inhabitants of the land, or the effects of previous combat on the nation’s infrastructure and sense of security, is hardly rendered in the shape-files that flip from one hue to the other, suggesting a “lightning” advance of a militarized Taliban, evoking a sudden loss of a territorial advantage for which Americans long fought, and for which Aghans are to blame. Yet as much as the linked maps of “district control” suggest a traumatic collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the ally of the past five American Presidents, the maps collapse or elide the deep disturbances the war and importation of arms has brought to the territory that lies beneath the map, or oversimplified visualization of regional control.

Financial Times via Global Investigative Journalism, “The Taliban’s March”
source: Foundation for the Defense of Democracy’s “Long War Journal” by Mike Roggio

The quandary of designating Afghan regions by questions of “control” presumed a sense of stability and allegiance more akin to an idealized military map than to the situation on the ground. The checkerboard image of areas of “government” and areas of “Taliban” control became thinly veiled covers for a Global War on Terror in which the United States defined itself on the side of the good, that was current in a variety of maps long after the First Surge. In the context of the broad drawdown of American troops after the First Surge, as US troops level fell below 10,000 and Afghan Security Forces were celebrated for their effectiveness, the Taliban made steady gains on the ground. But the maps that suggested “stability” in government-held areas created a cocoon from which to affirm stability of a regime that never had broad institutional support as if the dangers it faced were from an “insurgency” 2002-6, and promoted an image of government control within the outlines of a national map, arriving from outside of a nation that still had retained its integrity and clear bounds as if they were able to be preserved.

“Neo Taliban Insurgency, 2002-6”

Even as Taliban presence was more clearly established than we liked to map, the image of the Taliban as outsiders in Tribal lands created a sense of justifying a “civilizing mission” that was understood as more pacific than military, underpinned by a myth or conceit that the disciplined bodies of American warriors would beat the undisciplined bodies of the Taliban. This myth was confusing the goals of the military occupation, but creating an increasingly real edge for Afghans who experienced much more fully “the sharp edge of war” both forged increased bonds between the members of the military and the fighters and the landscape among the generations of Taliban fighters, and their logic of responding to a military strategy American generals mismapped on a geostrategic checkerboard–the very checkerboard that Foundation for the Defense of Democracies encouraged us to understand the success, progress, or challenges of combat, and indeed control their fears and responses to technologies of combat imported to the region by the United States.

Fall of Districts by July 1, 2021, documented by Fazl Raman Muzary, from local media and on the ground reports

The deep concern of a lack of “strategic vision” was not the best way to understand military engagement of Taliban forces, or to cast the compact shift of district loyalty after the American withdrawal. But these terms provided the terms to condemn and bewail the broad geopolitical military failure read into the maps of Taliban advance in August, 2021, apparently confirming that the AFSN had built up as our surrogate was unable to “face” the Taliban militia we continue to cast as “rebels” or “insurgents.” But the negotiated settlement allowed te rapid fall of a number of districts, as while it required the Taliban cease hostilities with NATO and American troops who had negotiated the settlement, the terms allowed Taliban forces to concentrate on negotiating settlements with local regions, exploiting divisions and existing corruption of Ghani’s Afghan government, boosted by the concessions to release 5,000 prisoners in the past, and the opening of jails in districts whose centers they captured or negotiated a solution.

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Mapping Radiation Levels: Toward a Vigilante Cartography or a Model of Data-Sharing?

Few maps rely entirely on self-reported measurements today:  the data-rich basis of maps make poor controls on data an early modern throwback.  But the ability to transmit datasets to the internet from local devices has changed all that.  The recent proliferation of radioactivity maps are based on the open sourcing of self-reported measurements to form a new picture, placing information taken with Geiger counters into a framework analogous to a template borrowed from Google Maps.  Although the only instrument to register radiation’s presence is a Geiger counter, and no standards have been developed for representing the rises in radiation counts in different regions–or indeed the limits of danger to personal health–the provision of such a map is crucial to disseminating any information about a potential future disaster.  While the three reactor that released radiation in the Fukushima meltdown created the largest release of radiation into the atmosphere, the mapping of this release of 300 tons of radioactive waste reported to be spewing from the reactors as they cooled into the Pacific Ocean may have slipped off the radar of daily news, but on the internet may have become the greatest environmental disaster we’ve encountered, increasing the demand and need to map it, and raising questions of its relation to the massive die-offs of Pacific starfish, herring,

By using the internet  to upload and broadcast shifting radiation levels, the flexibility of maps of radiation levels gain a new flexibility and readability through the platform of Google Maps can instantaneously register ambient radiation in air, earth, water, or rainfall, as well as the radioactivity of food, in striking visualizations of geographic space.  This came to a head in the maps that were made to respond to the threats of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster that occurred on March 2011, and the spread of radiation from the explosion across the Pacific that remind us of how wind and the medium of ocean waters distributed plumes of radioactive waste over time, as radioactive materials from the meltdown of three reactors were falsely imagined to have spread across most all of the Pacific rapidly–

 

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Hoax Projection of radioactive plume from Fusushima Daichi Plant

 

–and even extending into parts of the Atlantic ocean, in ways that generated considerable panic as a density of radioactive waste moved toward the bucolic seas of Hawai’i–as if to create a sense of the terror of the contamination of the natural setting by radioactive plumes.

There was a sense that the natural disaster could be recorded in real-time, reflecting the extent to which Google Maps had changed our expectations for the mappability of global phenomena, and the visibility of fears of global contamination that could be registered and recorded as a real-time apocalypse as everyone could be their own prophet of the end of times on the platform that it allowed.

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image.pngEarth First! (March 2012)

 

The news ecology itself seem to have shifted, indeed, as what was undeniably an environmental disaster with potential  global import if not an event with potentially massive environmental consequences was played down in the mainstream media and by science reporting agencies, in ways that led alternative media to promulgate all the more alarmist narratives of radioactive fish off the United States, die-offs of seafood, and radiations on beaches in California and Oregon and the image that the pristine seawaters of Hawai’i had become a sort of epicenter where all radioactive waste had accumulated and come to rest, as if to confirm the extent of technological disaster.

 

Dispersion of Fukishima 2012

 

The maps suggested a sense of atmospheric proximity revealed in radioactive plumes, to be sure, that generated multiple fake maps, designed as forms of fear-mongering to accentuate the proximity of radiation in the environment, using an undated map with the NOAA seal to suggest the spread of something from Japan–and folks assumed it was radioactive, given the climate online–although it was in fact a map  measuring effects of a March 11 2011  tsunami, provoked by the Tohoku earthquake on wave height and he communication of wave-energy across the Pacific–perhaps more of interest to surfers than those fearing fallout.

 

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For the explosion created huge challenges for mapping a sense of global radiological risk, far transcending any place or the site of its explosion:  the greatest levels of radiation were far removed from the site of the disaster, at the same time as the contamination on the ground, where radioactive deposits were far more intense in relation to geographical proximity.  Despite the far broader time-lapse required for the radioactive plume to travel by ocean currents across the Pacific–here shown after two and a half years–based on water samples taken in 2013, which, if far lower than limits in drinking water at 1 Becquerels/cubic meter, were projected to peak to 5 in 2015-16–far less than you might eat in a banana, or experience in a dental x-ray.

 

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Discontinuities trumped continuities, however, in the levels of Cesium 134–the isotope that was the fingerprint of the Dai-ichi explosion–confirmed the extent of the diffusion of radioactive isotopes linked to the Fukushima reactor, by 2015, contaminated not only Canadian salmon, as tracked at the University of Victoria, but spread across much of the Pacific ocean, leaving an incredible intensity of the fingerprint isotope linked to Fukushima Dai-ichi–Cesium-134–in offshore waters, which perhaps recirculated in the Alaskan gyre, and the radioactive plume was projected to reach American shores some 1,742 days after it was released.

 

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If still detectable in shellfish sampling as well as salmon, in 2015, the dispersion of radiation made a delayed landfall to the Pacific coast in late 2016, much as the arrival of isotopes across the Pacific was recorded–raising questions of the travel by water of Cesium across the Pacific.

 

 

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The air dosages of radiation immediately around Fukushima Daiichi suggest a dangerous level of radiation on the mainland, however, apparently confirmed in the growth of thyroid cancer, especially in children, birth defects, and the retention of Cesium 134 in power station workers who show an incidence of leukemia–

 

Air Dose rate Fukushima Daiichi.png

and a rise in thyroid cancer in California that follow no distinct geographical pattern–but may be due to pesticides, agricultural contamination, or other waste.

An assembly of multiple static and dynamic maps might assemble an otherwise ‘hidden map’ of local levels of radiation, however, and to reveal or expose otherwise hidden local dangers populations face from radiation leaks.  The notion of a shared database in cases of eventual emergency that can be regularly updated online suggested a way of monitoring and reacting to panic levels of the dispersion of radiation from the nuclear explosion, and indeed to measure the unclear relation between proximity to a blast and the intensity of remaining radiation and radioactive dangers.

Although the measurements of danger are debated by some, mapping radiation levels provides a crucial means to confront meltdowns, the breaching of chambers’ walls, or leaks, and to define limits of danger in different regions.   Interestingly, the map stands in inverse relation to the usual mapping of human inhabitation: rath er than map sites of habitation or note, it tracks or measures an invisible site of danger as it travels under varied environmental influences in ways hard to predict or track.  Although the notion of what such a disaster would be like to map has been hypothetical–and is, to an extent, in datasets like the National Radiation Map, which use the Google Earth platform or available GIS templates to diffuse information not easily accessible.  This is a huge improvement over the poor state of information at the time of the threatened rupture of the containment structure of the Three Mile Island in Harrisburg PA in 1978, when no sources had a clear of what radius to evacuate residents around the plant, or how to best serve health risks:  if a radius of 10 miles was chosen in 1978, the Chernobyl disaster required a radius of over the double.  The clean up of the plant went on from 1980 to 1993; within a 10 mile radius, high radiation levels continued in Harrisburg today.

The larger zones that were closed around the more serious and tragic Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that in fact exploded in April 1986 led to a clear Zone of alienation that was evacuated three days after the explosion, and considerable fear of the diffusion of radioactive clouds born in the environment to Europe and North America.  The irregular boundary of immediate contamination, including pockets of radiation hotspots not only in Belarus, but in Russia and  the Ukraine suggest limited knowledge of the vectors of contamination, and imprecise measurements.

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This raised a pressing question:  how to render what resists registration or simple representation–and even consensus–on a map?  And is this in any way commensurate with the sorts of risks that maps might actually try to measure?

The tragic occurrence of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown raised similar questions, but converged with a new basis to define an internet-based map of the region.  If the incident provided a case-in-point instance of ready demand for maps, the availability of a large number of online access in the region led to a considerable improvisation with the value of a crowd-sourced map not defined the local government or nuclear authorities, but by the inhabitants of the region who demanded such a map.  The accident that resulted from the tsunami no doubt contributed to a resurgence and perfecting of the crowd-sourced map both in the United States and, in  a more flexible way, Japan, as websites try to refine the informative nature carried in radiation maps to create an informative response by open-access maps that can quickly register the consequences of nuclear disaster–or indeed detect such a leak or structural compromise–in the age of the internet, and offer a reassuring image (or a cautionary image) adequate to meet with the invisible and intangible diffusion of radiation in the local or regional environment.

Demand for such online databases reveal and feed upon deeper fears of an official failure to share such data.  Indeed, the drive to create a map of some authority has dramatically grown in the light of recent radiation disasters that have not been mapped earlier, in part because of liability issues and because of fears that government protection of the nuclear industry has compromised their own responsibility.  If the growth of online sites is a sensible and effective use of data-sourcing on an open platform created by internet providers, it is also one no doubt fed by a paranoid streak in the American character stoked most heavily these days by folks on the Right.  I’ve decided to look at two examples of these maps below, both to reflect on the nature of a crowd-sourced map and to suggest the plusses and minuses of their use of a GIS framework to visualize data.

The emphasis on the map as a shared database and resource to monitor and publicize the sensitive information about radiation levels has unsurprisingly increased by the recent threat of contaminated waters that breached the containing walls during the meltdown of the Daichi-Fukushima reactor in March 2011, and also of the difficulties that providing a reliable map of radiation creates:  although reactors are licensed by governments and monitored by government agencies, debates about the public dangers that reactors pose concern both the danger levels of radiation and the ability to collect exact data about their spatial distribution, and communication through waters, air, and other environmental vectors.  The ability to upload such measurements directly to data-sharing platforms provides a new access for the relatively low-cost creation of maps that can be shared online among a large group of people in regularly updated formats.  Given the low-cost of accumulating a large data-set, Safecast concentrated on devising a variety of models to visualize distributions along roads or by interpolating variations in existing maps.

The group-sourced website showing regional and local fluctuations are not visually or cartographically inventive, but pose questions about using data feeds to reveal a hidden topography, as it were, of radiation across the country or landscape–as if to remedy the absence of an open-access trustworthy source of this information local governments would sponsor or collate.  Against a field that notes the sites of reactors by standard hazard-signs that designate active reactors, viewers can consult fluctuating readings in circled arabic numbers to compare the relative intensity measured at each reporting monitor station.  While rudimentary, and without adjustments or standardized measurements, this is an idea with legs:  the Safecast Project proposes to take mapping radiation in the environment along a crowd-sourced model–an example of either a pluralization of radical cartography or a radical cartography that has morphed into a crowd-sourced or “vigilante” form of mapping radiation levels.

Safecast wants to create a “global sensor network” with the end of “collecting and sharing radiation measurements to empower people with data about their environments.”  Its implicit if unspoken message of “Cartography to the People!”  echoes a strain in American skepticism, if not paranoia, about information access, and fear of potential radioactive leaks–in a counter-mapping of USGS topographic surveys, the movement to generate such composite maps on the internet is both an exciting dimension of crowd-sourced cartographical information, and a potentially destabilizing moment of the authority of the map, or a subversion of its authority as an image produced by a single state.

The interesting balance between authority and cartography is in a sense built into the crowd-sourced model that is implied the “global sensor network” that Safecast corporation wants to construct:  while not readily available in maps on access to government-sponsored sites, those interested in obtaining a cartographical record of daily shifting relative radioactive danger can take things into their own hands with a handy App.

The specific “National Radiation Map” at RadiationNetwork.com aims at “depicting environmental radiation levels across the USA, updated in real-time every minute.”  They boast:  “This is the first web site where the average citizen (or anyone in the world) can see what radiation levels are anywhere in the USA at any time.”  As impressive are the numbers of reactors that dot the countryside, many concentrated on the US-Canadian border by the Great Lakes, as in Tennessee or by Lake Michigan.  Although a credible alert level is  100, it’s nice to think that each circle represents some guy with a Geiger counter, looking out for the greater good of his country.  The attraction of this DIY cartography of inserting measurements that are absent from your everyday Google Map or from the Weather Channel is clear:  self-reporting gives a picture of the true lay of the radioactive land, one could say.  This is a Jeffersonian individual responsibility of the citizen in the age of uploading one’s own GPS-determined measurements; rather than depending on surveying instruments, however, readings from one’s own counters are uploaded to the ether from coordinates that are geotagged for public consumption.

Of course, there’s little level of standard measurements here, as these are all self-reported based on different models and designs–they list the fifteen acceptable models on the site–in order to broadcast their own data-measurements or “raw radiation counts,” which makes the map of limited scientific reliability and few controls.  So while the literally home-made nature of the map has elements of a paranoid conspiracy–as most any map of nuclear reactors across the country would seem to–the juxtaposition of trefoil radiation hazard signs against the bucolic green backdrop oddly renders it charmingly neutral at the same time:  the reactors are less the point of the map than the radiations levels around them.

 

USA map radioactivity

 

But the subject that is mapped is anything but reassuring.  When we focus on one region, the density of self-reported sites gains a finer grain in the Northeast, we can see the concentration of hazard signs noting reactors clustering around larger inhabited areas, oddly, like the ring around New Jersey, just removed from New York, the nuclear reactors in the triangle of Tennessee and Virginia, or those outside of Chicago and in Iowa, and one sees a somewhat high reading near Harrisburg PA.  But it’s reassuring that a substantial number of folks were using their Geiger counters at that moment, and inputting data into this potentially useful but probably also potentially paranoid site.  I hope they do interview them beforehand, given the very divergent readings at some awfully proximate sites.

 

NortheastUS

 

If we go to a similarly dense network on the West Coast, the folks at Mineralab offer a similar broad spread among those informants, and the odd location of so many reactors alongside rivers–no doubt using their waters for cooling, but posing potential risks of downriver contamination at the same time.

PacificNW

 

Although the view of Southern California is perhaps still more scary, and reminds us that the maps have not taken time to denote centers of population:

 

AmericanSW

 

And there’s a charming globalism to this project. Things aren’t particularly worse off in the USA in terms of the reliance on reactors, if we go to Europe, where reporters are similarly standing vigilant with Geiger counters at the ready given the density of those familiar trefoil hazard signs in the local landscape:

 

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The truly scary aspect of that map is the sheer distribution of reactors, no doubt, whose hazard signs that dot the countryside like scary windmills or danger signs.  And, just to put in perspective the recent tsunami that leaked radioactive waste and waters from the Fukushima reactor whose walls it breached, sending material waste and leaching radioactive waters to California’s shores, consider Japan.  An impressive range of reactors dot the countryside, and but one vigilant reporter in Sapporo notes the very low levels of radiation that reach his counter:

 

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Withe a week after the March 11, 2011 earthquake hit Japan, the greatest to ever hit Japan, Safecast was born as a volunteer group dedicated to open-platform radiation monitoring in the country and worldwide; in addition to over 15880 dead in the Tsunami and quake, the tsunami caused level 7 meltdowns at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex, necessitating evacuating hundreds of thousands of residents, as at least three nuclear reactors exploded due to hydrogen gas that breached outer containment buildings after cooling system failure.   When residents were asked to evacuate who dwelled within a 20 km radius of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the United States government urged American citizens evacuate who lived within a radius up to 80 km (50 mi) of the plant to evacuate.  This rose questions about the dispersal of radiation from the plant, and deeper questions arose about the safety of returning within a set zone, or the need to demarcate an no-entry zone around the closed plant.

The rapid measurement of radiation distributions not only gained wide demand but provided as of July 2012, Safecast includes some 3,500,000 data points that collect radiation levels, and provided a new mode of sharing information about dangerous levels of radiation.  In ways that capitalize on how the internet allows a massive amount of data to be uploaded from numerous points around the world, Safecast exploits a model of data-sharing on its open platform, offering different models to visualize their relation to each other:  Safecast allows the possibility to visualize the maps against a road-map, topographic map, and map of local population distributions, so that they can better understand their relation to the readings that they’ve collated on line.

The process of massing data is what makes Safecast such a pioneer in creating a large range of readings that can promise a more comprehensive picture of radiation distribution than the uneven distributions that isolated readers might allow.  The Safecast team hopes and promises to improve upon their readings by designing and promoting a new Geiger counter, and has made available the handy workhorse bGeigie, although the cost of $1000/apiece and the time-consuming nature of their assembly is a major obstacle they’re trying to confront. The smaller and handier Geigier Nano Kit creates a dandy device you can easily carry, affix to your car, and whose measurements are easily uploaded to the Safecast website:

 

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The DIY glee of presenting the tool to measure radiation levels with one’s own mini-Geiger is part of the excitement with which Safecast promises to provide a new map of Japan’s safely habitable land.  The excitement also derives from a belief in the possibility of “empowering” people to measure and compile data about their environments, rather than trust a map that is assembled by “experts” or official sources who have not been that forthcoming with data-measurements by themselves.  The above smile also reflects the vertiginous success of Safecast in distributing its bGeigei, and the boast to have amassed an open-sourced database for open access.

This seems the new key to revealing knowledge in the multiple visualizations that Safecast offers for viewers:  with the enthusiasm of great marketing, their website announces with some satisfaction: “attach it to your car and drive around collecting geo-tagged radiation data easily uploaded to Safecast via our API upload page.” This suggest a whole other idea of a road trip, or even of a vacation, in the multiple ‘road-maps’ that volunteers have uploaded for approval on the Safecast site, with over 10,000 data points deriving from bGeigei imports, that Safecast can readily convert to a map:

Tokyo traffic Safequest

 

This is also quite serious stuff, taking crowd-sourced cartography to a new degree:  with some 4,000,000 radiation points detected by the Safecast team, the website is able to assemble a comprehensive map of relatively uniform readings, complimenting the sites of radioactivity assembled and culled by the Japanese government with their own independent data from an impressive range of aggregate feeds of environmental data from several NGOs and individual observers across Japan’s coast:

 

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The image of such aggregate data feeds allowed Yahoo! Japan to build their own map displaying the static sensor data of Safecast:

Yahoo Japan feeds

Kailin Kozhuharov has created a detailed map to visualize the distribution of radiation levels in the island through the Safecast database:

 Kozhuharov Visualization of Radiation Levels

 

The coverage is truly impressive, and multiplication of data points technically unlimited and potentially comprehensive. While divergent readings may be entered every so often as a Geiger counter wears down or malfunctions, controls are built into the system. An example of the coverage in Japan, again the focus of mapping radioactivity in the wake of the recent Fukushima disaster, where Safecast is based, using locally obtained data once again:

 

Safecast Japan

 

The widespread appeal of this device, even more than the Radiation Network, reveals the widespread nature of a belief or suspicion–no doubt with some grounds or justification–that a true map of the dangers or levels of radiation is in fact never already provided or available to citizens, and that the failure of governments of communicating an accurate mapping of radiation demands a privatized response.  And with its partnership with Keio University, developed after Fukushima, Safeguard has developed the “Scanning the Earth” (STE) project that maps the historical data of radiation readings across the globe.  With the Fukushima prefecture, Safecast has also issued a comprehensive global mapping of the dispersal of high levels of radioaction from Fukushima from its own massive database to chart the impact of the environmental disaster over time:

 

Fukushima Prefecture World Map

Although this map reflect the ties to the MIT Media Lab, it is informed by a dramatically new local awareness of the importance to create a map flexible enough to incorporated locally uploaded data measurements for open access.  It is also a great example of how an event can create, provoke, or help to generate a new sense of how maps can process the relation of local phenomenon to the global in a variety of readily viewable formats.  The demand for creating this world map clearly proceeded from the local event of the 2011 Tsunami, Safecast was at a position to observe the importance of maintaining an open-sourced database (now including some 2,500,000 readings) that offer an unprecedented basis for developing a platform of data-sharing that is readily available online.  In working with the same databases, they also offer some cool visualizations of the data that they collect to illustrate differentials radiation levels in readable ways linked to potential dangers to individual health:

Fukushima?  Safecast

The new facility that the internet has created in the ability to upload, share, and compile information from diverse and multiple sites without considerable costs has meant so lowered the cost of collaboration that it can occur without any reference or dependence on a central governmental authority. This has allowed the compilation of an immense amount of simultaneous data to be regularly uploaded and stored with almost no extra cost from a group of volunteers and to be available in transparent ways on an open-access platform.  (Late in updating this post, I came across an earlier PBS NewsHour episode on Safecast’s interest in data-collection in the wake of the disaster, and the demand of local residents in Japan for further data, given the silence of official government sources on the disaster and its dangers:

(The episode offers great data on using Geiger counters to detect radiation levels at multiple sites near the exclusion zone that rings the reactor, including a restaurant parking lot.)

The means for offering locally contributions to a world map of radiation level distributions reveal an expanded ability to share information in a map the relation of place to environmental disasters.  Indeed, the map itself foregrounds new graphical forms of information-sharing.  There are clear problems with the Safecast model that Japan, in fact, is likely to be an exception to:  Japan was a place providing access to large numbers of its population already in 2003, offering free wi-fi in trains, airports, and cafés or tea houses.  In comparison, the far more limited numbers of the population have access to wi-fi or online resources in rural American towns, or even in urban areas, would make access questions less possible in the United States, where a similar movement has failed to expand not only because of the lack of a disaster of similar proportions.  There is the danger that the “freedom of information” they champion is in the end not as openly accessible as one would wish:  if roughly one quarter of hotspots worldwide are in the United States, it shared with China and Italy the lowest number of hotspots per person, at lower than 3 per person as of 2007, while Japan had nearly 30 million 3G connections.  This creates a significant obstacle to the expansion of the internet as a universal access service outside urban areas with municipal wireless networks, despite the significant plans to expand internet access on interstates.  Despite plans to expand free service zones in Asia, Canada, and parts of the Americas, the broadcasting of regional variations in a natural disaster would be limited.

There may be something oddly scary that Safecast has had its own corporate profile and successful Kickstarter campaign, marking the privatization of the sort of public traditions of cartography formerly undertaken by states for their own populations to devolve to the private sphere.  For whereas we have in the past treated cartographical records as an accepted public good, there is limited acceptance of accessible data collection and synthesis.  As a result, one seems more dependent on the active participation in one’s construction of a more accurate of radiation levels, or upon a network of vigilant vigilante cartographers who can upload data from wi-fi zones.  Is there the risk of a disenfranchisement of a larger population, or is data-sharing the best available option?

An alternative model for mapping radiation might be proposed in the compelling map of the oceanic travel of radiation (probably in contaminated waters, but also in physical debris) that has been suggested by vividly compelling cartographical simulations of the dispersal of the long-term dispersal of Cesium 137 (137CS) from waters surrounding the Fukushima reactor.  Although the map is indeed terrifyingly compelling, in relying only on oceanic currents to trace the slow-decaying tracer across the Pacific, the video map seems to arrogate capacities of measuring the dispersal over the next ten years of radioactive material in ocean waters with a degree of empiricism that it does not in fact have.  How ethical is that?

http://bcove.me/cp9fol2w

For all the beauty of the color-spectrum map of a plume of radiation expanding across ocean waters–and the value of its rhetorical impact of strikingly linking us directly to the reactor’s meltdown–its projected charting of the plume of contaminated waters due to reach the waters of the United States during 2014, if normal currents continue, is far less accurate or communicative than it would seem.  To be sure, as the Principal Investigator and oceanographer Vincent Rossi, a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Physics and Complex Systems in Spain, “In 20 years’ time, we could go out, grab measurements everywhere in the Pacific and compare them to our model.”  But for now, this expanding miasma offers an eery reminder of the threat of widespread circulation of radioactive materials worldwide.

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Indeed, the charts that project the spread of radiation over a period of five years, benefitting from the power of computer simulations to map by tracer images the diffusion of radioactive discharge along clear contour lines in the Atlantic, provide a compelling chart of how we might want to look and measure the levels of radioactivity in our national waters.

 

tracer image of radiation from Fukushima

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Filed under Chernobyl, disaster maps, Fukushima, radiation maps, Vigilante Cartography