Category Archives: Geostrategy

Turkey turns to Russia amid allegations of US coup complicity

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Turkey is executing a dramatic change in foreign policy, aligning itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in part because of the US’s and the EU’s reaction to the purge that followed the 15 July coup attempt. Ruling party leaders say the state of emergency will not last more than three months and that the Kurdish-based HDP will not be left out of national unity efforts. We’ll see about that!

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Atatürk’s mausoleum behind minarets and Ankara rooftops Photo: Tony Cross

Ankara 27-28 July 2016

Accompanying the mayor I meet on Wednesday evening is someone who’s introduced as an advisor to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim – another one who doesn’t want to give his name, but for different reasons to the others I’ve spoken to – along with a couple of gentlemen who apparently have something to do with intelligence and defence.

They say that a key Gülenist, whom they name as Adil Öksüz, was captured at the nearby Akinci airbase during the coup attempt.

Other Gülenists have apparently come forward to confess, including another prime ministerial adviser, known as Fuat Avni, and are spilling a certain amount of beans on the movement.

Avni’s statements led to the arrest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military aide de camp Colonel Ali Yazici, they say, and that has led to other top aides, past and present.

However highly placed they are, the organisation’s cell structure means that defectors can’t name a lot of names, if the information I’m given is correct.

Cells are led by a “big brother”, who reports to a bigger brother, and they all use code names.

Given that the AKP worked with the Gülenists for many years, there must surely be many members in the party, I point out.

They agree and say that an “in-depth investigation” is taking place and that some have already come forward.

The party seems ready to forgive individuals who were attracted by the movement’s ideals but were not aware of the coup plot.

Gülenists ready to explain themselves to the media having always been in short supply – even more so at the moment – I am not in a position to say what those ideals really are.

AKP people say that Gülen claims to be the new Mahdi, who will redeem Islam, and that the movement is a threat wherever it has schools and other interests, ie a number of countries in central Asia, Africa and, as it happens, the United States.

Relations with US under threat

The government found that the US was slow to condemn the coup and this, combined with its criticism of the post-coup purge and its apparent reluctance to extradite Gülen from his Pennsylvania compound, has given rise to accusations that it was aware of and supported the coup attempt.

If Washington refuses extradition it will be taken as proof of involvement, the adviser says, and that will mean a complete change in relations between Turkey, a key member of Nato, and the US.

There were already accusations that Gülen is a CIA agent and my informants seem to believe them, one of them throwing in a claim of German involvement for good measure.

EU criticism of the Turkish government’s reaction to the purge have also been poorly received and there is already evidence of a major realignment of Turkish foreign policy, which would mean Turkey joining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to establish a bloc to rival the West on the world stage.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek on Tuesday announced that Erdogan would visit Russia on 9 August, while he himself was on a visit to Moscow along with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci.

Russia is, of course, strictly non-judgemental about the reaction to the coup and has lifted a damaging embargo imposed when the Turks shot down one of its jets over Syria last year.

Even before the coup attempt there were indications that Ankara may normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad, a prospect that stunned Syrian rebel groups.

Is military weakened? Will national unity last? The AKP line

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Ak party vice-president Mehdi Eker Photo: Tony Cross

AKP vice-president Mehdi Eker refuses to “speculate” on what will happen if Gülen is not extradited when we meet him at the party’s huge headquarters in Ankara.

“We know, and are very sure – we have a lot of evidence – that Fetullah Gülen is the leader of this organisation, as it has been confessed by many members who were involved in the military coup,” he says. “We have conveyed these files to the US. President Erdoğan called [US President Barack] Obama and asked for the extradition of Gülen, and PM Yıldırım also had a phone conversation with [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and asked him officially.”

So “an ally and friendly country” is bound to “act according to international law and according to bilateral relations on this issue”, he declares.

Eker is defensive on defence.

The 8,000-plus personnel dishonourably discharged is a small percentage of the huge Turkish armed forces, he points out, but has to concede that then over 40 per cent of generals and admirals fired could be damaging.

“The Turkish army is traditionally very strong and powerful,” he says with masterly understatement. “Of course, as far as they get the support from the people and administration, they will recover. I have no doubt whatsoever about it. In previous coup attempts, for example in 1971 there was again a coup attempt, it recovered. It will again recover. No problem!”

He confirms reports that responsibility for the gendarmerie and the coastguard will be transferred from the defence to the interior ministry and that the polie may be given heavy weapons.

The Kurds – the elephant not in the national unity room

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HDP co-vice-president Saruhan Öluc Photo: Tony Cross

Like the CHP’s Tezcan, he is enthusiastic about the post-coup spirit of national unity.

“The people are all together, hand in hand,” Eker declares. “All the people from different statuses, different backgrounds, different parties all stay together.”

But one party was absent from Erdogan’s meeting with opposition leaders on Monday – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

When I met HDP vice-president Saruhan Öluc in Istanbul on Tuesday, he was worried that this meant the formation of a nationalist bloc against Kurdish rights.

To read my interview with Saruhan Öluc click here

But Eker, who is himself a Kurd and represents a constituency in Diyarbakir where the conflict with armed Kurdish groups rages on, insists that the HDP will be involved in future talks.

“As long as they take a firm stance against coups and any other anti-democratic affairs, we are together. They are elected by people so they are legitimate.”

The gendarmerie being deployed in rural areas, their transfer to the interior minister may mean more involvement in security operations in the south-east.

Torture hasn’t happened but, if it has, it will be punished

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Human rights lawyer Sercan Aran Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier today lawyer Sercan Aran told us that soldiers detained since the coup claims to have been abused, tortured and even raped.

Some had been deprived of food for three days, others housed in stables or kept in stress positions for the same length of time.

A general said he had been sodomised by a police truncheon – one suspects an element of resentment from the lower ranks – but refused to file a complaint because of the shame he would feel if his family knew.

There was evidence of other similar cases, Aran said, and lawyers had faced obstruction and physical assault while trying to represent detained soldiers.

To read my report for RFI on torture allegations click here

“Everything is done under the rule of law,” Eker insists, describing Amnesty International’s report on the torture allegations as biased.

But the charges will be investigated, he says, and if any cases come to light “of course they will be punished”.

Prosecutors have been given exceptional powers, including the right to search premises, including lawyers’ offices, without a judge’s warrant and the right to seize documents from lawyers.

Plotters, including officers who tried to assassinate Erdogan, are still on the loose, Eker says, so exceptional measures are justified.

But, he adds in reference to France’s eight-month state of emergency, Turkey’s will probably not last more than three months.

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Before the Paris attacks – IS’s dangerous liaisons in Turkey

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When I visited the devastated houses that were the scene of a Turkish police raid on hideouts of the Islamic State (IS) armed group it never crossed my mind that I would be visiting the scenes of IS attacks in Paris less than three weeks later. The Paris attacks cost at least 120 lives and have sparked a wave of sympathy across the world. IS has claimed more lives in Turkey – 135 in the Suruc and Ankara bombings, which appear to have been targeted because of their links to the Kurds, alone  – but, although those attacks received plenty of media coverage, there was not the same outpouring of grief worldwide. The story of the IS and the Turkish state is a complicated one, as I found on my visit to Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish-majority south east.

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The damage caused by a booby trap that killed two police officers and the police assault at the IS hideout in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir 29 October 2015

There’s a gaping hole where the house’s front door used to be. That’s where a booby trap went off, killing two police officers trying to enter and capture or kill the house’s occupants.

The windows are blown out, the interior is a charred shell, there are bullet holes in the walls and a hole in the garden where a jihadist detonated a suicide vest. The trunks of trees in front of the house are splintered and torn by shrapnel.

Seven IS fighters were killed and a significant haul of weapons and explosives seized in the this house and another nearby. They buildings in a residential area of the city served as an IS commando’s base in Diyarbakir.

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Police have done nothing to prevent access to the scene of the fighting Photo: Tony Cross

Although the raid was on Monday, the house still attracts the interest of a group of men and youths. There are no police present and the site had not been cordoned off, so kids and adults go in and clamber among the ruins, oblivious to the possibility that there might still be undiscovered explosives inside.

The police were not particularly diplomatic with Fatma, who live in the house next door, either. They told her and her family that they would fire on their house if they failed to leave the lights on before evacuating them and starting their assault.

Fatma didn’t have much to do with her young neighbours, their main contact being when they put up a tarpaulin in the garden and she asked them to take it down because it interfered with her family’s satellite TV reception.

“We didn’t expect Islamic State to be our neighbours!” she comments.

The pink house around the corner is in almost as bad a state of destruction and also excites the interest of neighbours, both adults and children.

Sinan, who is taking photos on his smartphone, lives in a block of flats over the road.

His family was woken be the fighting.

“Of course I was frightened,” he says. “My children woke up and they were frightened.”

Before the attack, the occupants, all young Kurdish men, gave lessons in religion to local people.

“I didn’t go and I didn’t send my children,” Sinan says.

To read my report of IS in Diyarbakir for RFI click here.

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Children explore the ruins of one of the houses raided by police in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

The government and the security forces insist they are taking the threat from IS seriously and are even issuing alarming reports of possible further attacks.

Police told the media today that a commando of 10 women, four of them foreign, is at large and planning suicide bombings. They are said to be part of the Dokumacilar group, to which those who were living in these also belonged.

Yesterday Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu slammed Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the left-wing, pro-Kurd HDP, for accusing him of legitimising IS.

His office says that 285 IS suspects have been arrested in the first nine months of 2015.

But he quickly changed the subject to the Syrian Kurdish YPG, an armed group allied to the Turkish PKK that has proved the most effective force in fighting IS, most famously by recapturing the town of Kobane.

The military have bombed the YPG recently and Davutoglu says that is justified because they represent a threat to Turkish territory.

An indication that he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are more worried about armed Kurds than armed Islamists came when Ankara agreed to join US-led air strikes on IS … and then proceeded to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq, having broken off peace talks with the guerrillas following the inconclusive 7 June election.

The government is believed to be worried that the autonomous area, known as Rojava to the Kurds and established by the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD), could serve as an example to Kurds in Turkey, as, indeed, it has. Autonomous zones have been declared in parts of Diyarbakir itself, as well as in towns like Silvan, since the peace talks were broken off.

The HDP and other opposition parties accuse the government of more than sitting on the fence, however.

They claim that it has helped the armed Islamists in Syria – firstly the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra front and then IS – party because a part of the electorate and membership of the ruling AKP sympathises with them ideologically and partly as a counter to the Kurds.

Evidence of the state’s complicity appears to have been brought to light in 2013 when a convoy heading for Syria was stopped and searched.

It was found to be carrying arms and agents of the secret services, the MIT.

The five prosecutors and one military commander responsible for stopping the convoy were rewarded for their vigilance by being charged with seeking to overthrow the government and revealing state security information.

A secrecy order has meant that their trial, which began earlier this month, is being held behind closed doors.

Kurdish activists believe that the state facilitated two bombings – one in Suruc in July that killed 33 young left-wingers and injured 104, the other at a peace rally in Ankara on 10 0ctober that killed 102 and injured 400 – for which IS has claimed responsibility.

“There are hundreds of cameras in Ankara. They knew there was going to be a demonstration. Why wasn’t there any protection?” asks HDP youth activist Cuneyt Cihan.

On the day of the Ankara bombing, after Erdogan called it an attack on Turkish unity and equated it to PKK attacks on Turkish police and soldiers, Demirtas came right out and accused the state of involvement.

“This attack is not targeting our state and national unity, it is perpetrated by the state against the people,” he said

Davutoglu is in town to officially open the airport – now we know why it’s operating although not exactly fully functional in all details – and hold an election rally.

“Turks and Kurds, brothers,” he has the crowd shout in a fine example of Erdogan’s conception of unity. “The separatists are traitors!”

When I came here in 2007, many Kurds found the AKP readier to listen to their discontents than the secular MHP and CHP, whose nationalist agenda had vigorously supported a dirty war in the south-east while in power.

The AKP had no Kemalist axe to grind and a certain amount of support among conservative Muslims in the region. And its supporters among the rising bourgeoisie of central Anatolia were keen to do trade with the European Union and eventually to join it and so ready to concede to concede to its criticisms of Turkey’s human rights record.

Two things appear to have changed.

Firstly, Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, casting himself as the heir to the Ottomans, whose legacy in the field of minority rights leaves a little to be desired.

Secondly, ending the peace process seems to have been a calculated attempt to heighten a feeling of insecurity and rally the nation around a strong ruler – himself, in this case.

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AKP Diyarbakir regional councillor Nejla Uysan Photo: Tony Cross

That’s not an analysis that shared by AKP regional councillor Nejla Uysan when we meet her at the party’s regional office on Friday.

“The government and the state doesn’t support Daesh. Definitely not!” she declared. “This is a barbaric organisation and, as Muslims, how do you think we could support such an organisation.”

She accuses the PKK of breaking the ceasefire and claims that the “liberated zones” punished the local population.

But she surprises me by saying that she thinks her party should work with the HDP.

For my written and audio accounts of the AKP in Diyarbakir for RFI click here

“Why don’t you think (we) will not share?” she asks in response to my surprise. “We are living in the same city. We can share everything.”

Not the party line, so far as I know.

For an audio report on the AKP in the 2007 presidential election click here.

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Why did IS attack Paris?

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A woman pays tribute to victims at the Belle Equipe restaurant in Rue Charonne, 11th arrondissement Paris Photo: Tony Cross

The Islamic State (IS) armed group has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s bloody attacks in Beirut and Paris. Since I live in the Paris area, I’ll comment on the question many people are asking – why these attacks on the French capital?

  • The targets appear to have been chosen by people who knew Paris well. Two teams from “crusader” countries- France and Germany – were playing at the Stade de France, the statement said, and President François Hollande was present. The attackers did not manage to mix with the crowd, however, limiting deaths to the attackers and one bystander. “Hundreds of idolaters gathered in a festival of perversity” were at the Bataclan, according to the statement, and dozens paid the price.  The other targets were in areas full of bars and restaurants, where crowds were guaranteed and where the likely victims were guilty of the sin of enjoying life in ways not approved by fundamentalists of any stripe. The statement says there was an attack in the 18th arrondissement, which there wasn’t, so a member of the commando could still be at large. IS says that all its victims were “crusaders”, although it obviously can’t know their identities, whether they were customers of bars and restaurants, staff or passersby. Not does it know how many of the victims were Muslims, which some of them almost certainly were.
  • IS seems to be stepping up attacks abroad as it comes under pressure in Syria and Iraq, with the loss of Sinjar and air strikes on its positions. Shia were targeted in Beirut, presumably because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and one reason for targeting France was probably its recent decision to join air strikes on IS in Syria (one shouldn’t forget that the French army has been fighting jihadists in Mali and the Sahel for some time now and has intervened in Muslim-Christian violence in the Central African Republic). French leaders’ statements about “acts of war” might imply that the country’s military involvement will become more intense, possibly with ground troops being sent in. That might not displease IS, which wants a confrontation with “Rome” at Dabiq, to fulfil an “end-times” prophecy.
  • France’s interpretation of secularism, as represented by Charlie Hebdo and the the public reation to this year’s massacre there, as well as by measures by successive government, particularly the banning of Islamic headscarves in schools, angers fundamentalists but also alienates many Muslims, who are not tempted by violence or even Salafi-style rigour.
  • France has the largest Muslim population in Europe – although we’re not allowed to know its exact size due to France’s interpretation of secularism. A tiny minority is tempted by violent fundamentalism, partly for religious reasons, partly because of the social exclusion they have experienced in France.  The government estimates that more than 500 are fighting in IS’s ranks and has boast s of almost certainly killing some of them in air strikes. Others can’t get there, partly because of a clampdown on people wishing to go by the French authorities, leaving them available to murder at home. Only eight suicide-attackers were needed to commit Friday night’s carnage. More attacks are entirely possible.
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A TV repoter outside the Bataclan, where there was the heaviest death toll on Friday night Photo: Tony Cross

Update 17.45 Paris time

I’ve just visited the scenes of three of the attacks.

Despite the declaration of a state of emergency, police and military presence seems fairly restrained. There were far more TV crews that security forces members outside the Bataclan, although the scene was heavily cordoned off.

There and in the rue de Charonne, people are arriving with flowers to lay at the scene or lighting candles. Since the government has banned all public gatherings, there will be no Charlie Hebdo-style demonstration, for the moment at least, and the mood doesn’t seem to be at quite such a pitch – more shock, less indignation.

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“Death to the illiterate barbarians” this handwritten poster declared Photo: Tony Cross

A couple of shops in rue de Charonne have hung up French flags – one also has a piece of paper bearing the #PrayforParis hashtag, a no doubt well-intentioned but curious choice given that a fair proportion of the victims and their families undoubtedly don’t believe in God while the attackers invoked his name to perpetrate their murders.

So a certain amount of nationalism. The crowd at the Stade de France apparently sang the Marseillaise – but what do we sing about when we sing the Marseillaise?

Someone has stuck a rose into bullet holes in the front of Sushi Maki restaurant, next to La Belle Equipe. And, since hate engenders hate, a piece of paper bears the legend “Death to the illiterate barbarians”.

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Hamid Gul, the spy who went into the cold

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Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence died on Sunday. I met him at his home in Rawalpindi in 2007 and found a man who was bitter about having been declared an enemy by the West for his links to the Taliban and other Islamists after being hailed as a hero for sending many of the same people to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. History can be so cruel! I’ll post a fuller account of this visit to Pakistan on my blog at a later date.

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Hamid Gul, resplendent in his medals Source: Wikipedia

 

Rawalpindi, September 2007

There is evidence of the military almost everywhere in this city next-door to Islamabad, which is home to the military and secret service headquarters.

Serving and retired officers are housed in cantts, short for cantonments, and retired General Hamid Gul lives in a spacious and well-protected house in one of them.

Gul was head of the secret services, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) in the 1980s. In collaboration with US and other agencies, he armed and trained the mojahedin who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. During his time as ISI chief there was an rise in jihadi activity in Indian-ruled Kashmir.

But in September 2007, as politicians and lawyers face off against President and Chief of Staff Pervez Musharraf, he says that it is time for the military to get out of Pakistan’s politics.

“This new-found freedom of the press and the judiciary, I think this is a gift to Pakistan,” he says. “This is going to lead to the empowerment of people. Now the military has got to go back to barracks.”

He is scathing about Musharraf’s allies. Today’s MPs are not independent, he says, “they’re under the shadow of the army”. But he hopes that “free and fair” elections will correct this state of affairs.

Gul is brutally frank in his criticism of Musharraf, whom he believes is on the brink of introducing martial law. “That’s the only option left to him. If he’s so greedy for power – and Americans are patting him on the back to go on and do it.”

“I’m quite amazed, really,” he says of Musharraf’s determination to cling on to both of his jobs. “It was my job twice to profile him because I was once his instructor in the staff college and second time he was my subordinate, when he was a major-general. He served under me and I wrote reports on him. And good reports, too.”

Back then Gul found the president-to-be pleasant and flexible. “I think it is fear that is driving him towards this and an unnecessary encouragement from the Americans.”

But the general, who has plenty of experience of Americans, believes they may be rethinking their strategy. “They’re very clever, they keep their intentions hidden,” he says.

Most analysts think that Washington is pushing Musharraf to reach agreement with Benazir Bhutto, who is apparently seen as secular and Western-friendly. Gul thinks they may plump for Nawaz Sharif, who, he says, has emerged as “almost unmitigated number-one political figure in the country”.

Gul is not against mixing religion and politics. Pakistan was born as a political-religious entity, he says. “They cannot be separated. In India and Pakistan, that is the lesson of history. If they [the religious parties] come to power, as long as they accept electoral politics, then there is no problem.”

The general advises the US to rethink its international strategy, especially its military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“There is no light at the end of the tunnel that they will succeed,” he says. “Tell me, are they succeeding? If they are not succeeding, then they must change direction.”

The Taliban, who imposed a distinctly unsecular regime on Afghanistan, came out of madrassas and refugee camps in Pakistan, enjoying the patronage of the ISI. While criticising the Taliban’s dispensation of summary justice, Gul says they did some “very good things”, introducing “peace” and “justice” after the chaos of the civil war between themojahedin factions he had himself backed.

But, he says, that was all after his retirement, and he was only responsible for the mojahedin, whom everybody, apart from the Russians, loved back then.

“The Americans, and let me tell you, French, German and all the free world which was afraid of the red menace,” he says. “They were all helping us. If it was culpable and was a crime, then we were all together in that crime.”

There’s no mistaking Gul’s bitterness, as he points to a lump of the Berlin Wall presented to him by the German government “with deepest respect to one who helped deliver the first blow”. Now, says retired General Hamid Gul, the US and the European countries with whom he used to work won’t give him a visa.

First posted on RFI’s website: http://www1.rfi.fr/actuen/articles/101/article_320.asp

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Women, warlords, drug-runners and NGOs … eyewitness to Afghanistan’s 2005 legislative election in Kabul and Herat

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In 2005 I covered Afghanistan’s first post-invasion parliamentary election. Here’s my account, written at the time, of how women and independent candidates struggled to make their voices heard, despite quotas, in a contest dominated by warlords and ethnic-based politicians. In the eastern city of Herat the legacy of one of these ruthless operators lives on, despite his being kicked upstairs to central government. In Kabul a former minister claims a mafia of warlords, drug-runners and NGOs is running the country.

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A Kabul kebab restaurant Photo: Tony Cross

Kabul, 11 September 2005

At last, the freedom they were fighting for! Four years after the US and its allies toppled the Taliban, Kabul has traffic jams.

Our midday journey from the airport to a hotel in the centre of town is excruciating, as we crawl through streets packed with private cars, taxis and land-cruisers.

At the end of the war, there were comparatively few motor vehicles.

Just under a year ago, during the presidential election, there was more traffic but not this asphyxiating blockade of the city’s main arteries.

Now the smog has become thicker and the thrum of engines ticking over lasts from mid-morning to evening. Every Kabuli has been granted the democratic right to sit and curse the car in front and pump fumes into the city’s already dust-laden air, whether in his or her own car, in a taxi or in a minibus stuffed full of passengers.

Except for the beggars and hawkers, of course. Amputees, women clad in soiled and faded burkas and kids selling newspapers dodge between the cars and tap on the windows. Near the junction of Park Street and Chicken Street, where foreigners shop for rugs and antique furniture, a man dressed in rags stands in the middle of the traffic, bent under the weight of an apparently paralysed boy who is strapped to his back for the day. The man holds out his hand for alms from the oncoming motorists, as the boy lies on top of him, occasionally rolling his head from side to side, apparently oblivious to the passing traffic.

The Americans are rebuilding the road from the airport, so that visiting dignitaries have a smooth run to their main compound, which is on the way into the city.

The concrete and barbed wire fortifications around their buildings, and those around others that house foreign organisations or Afghan ministries, seem to have been reinforced, eating even further into the streets around them. It doesn’t look as if their occupants expect to leave any day soon.

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A trader makes and seels Karzai-style astrakhan hats in a Kabul market Photo: Tony Cross

The square in front of the defence ministry is cordoned off  by police … not just because a convoy of cars belonging to Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak was attacked yesterday – the attack missed the minister who was out of town at the time – but also because the square is occupied by several hundred former soldiers.

We have to negotiate a passage through a barricade of bikes before we can talk to the protestors. They are some of several thousand military officers, about a third of the officer corps, who have been thrown out of the army.

These men used to belong to the various militias which were integrated into the army as part of the process which is supposed to demilitarise the country.

Having noticed that army officers’ salaries are several times higher than those of the police, the government has decided to dispense with their services.

The men, who seem to represent all of Afghanistan’s many ethnic groups, sit quietly in the dust around a van with a loudspeaker and a man on its roof, addressing them.

He climbs down and comes to talk to us.

Abdel Hafiz was a colonel. He says that the redundant officers could do the work now being done by the more than 30,000 foreign troops in a far-from-pacified country.

“We have high-ranking officers who are experienced and don’t need training. So we don’t need international forces to come here and secure our country.”

There aren’t a lot of jobs about nor spare fertile land to be worked.

“We’ve been borrowing from our friends and from our relatives, so now we are not able to borrow again. Now we’re out of money and our economic condition is getting worse.”

A crowd of about 40 men gathers as we talk. They all claim to be ex-mujahedin, who have fought either the Russians or the Taliban or both.

But the label can cover a multitude of sins. They could well have been involved in the brutality and sectarian viciousness which characterised the conflict and that means that many civilians don’t trust them.

Brought into the army by the post-war Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme, which aimed to find places for former fighters in a peaceful Afghanistan, they’ve now been deintegrated with little training in anything other than warfare … thousands of experienced fighters at a loose end in a country already ravaged by war.

Behind the cordon of truncheon-wielding police in front of the entrance to the ministry stands a line of soldiers, guns at the ready for use against their former officers if need be.

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A girl plays by the water pump installed by residents of Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Shah Shaheen is a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Kabul. The houses sprawling up the hillside and the dirt road that winds between them are all the same dusty colour. A new water-pump stands in a gap in the buildings, rigid and shiny against the jagged outline of distant mountains. The local people have themselves paid for its installation and would like the government to compensate them for the cost and provide other basic services.

Behind the shabby walls, in a house built around a traditional courtyard, Ghutai Khawari sits on a raised piece of ground, flanked by local supporters, with a small audience sitting in the shade provided by a colourfully-patterned sheet stretched between tall roughly-cut poles.

Khawari is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of parliament which is to be elected on Sunday along with provincial assemblies.

She’s a journalist and her level of education seems to impress her audience. In a country with 70-80% illiteracy, poor voters almost always say that they want an “educated person” to represent them.

Her audience is entirely masculine, unless you count a few little girls playing in the street outside.

The men seem to have left their wives, daughters, sisters and mothers at home but they insist that they’re ready to vote for a woman candidate.

Ali, a young man who is enthusiastically moving chairs and making people welcome, speaks to us in English.

“No, it’s not important, that, it is no problem. Islam says that women and men are equal.”

Ghawari tells her audience that it would be a sin to vote for candidates with blood on their hands, a reference to the many warlords who’ve found their way onto the ballot-papers.

Earlier she told us that ending ethnic enmity is her top priority, “especially among women, where they say ‘you’re a Pashtun, you’re a Tajik’ and so on, because we’re women, we’re human, we’re one.”

She accuses the authorities of paying lip-service to helping women but not taking action.

“The government and some NGOs say they will give rights to the people but they don’t pay any attention to the majority of women, who live in the villages, in the provinces.”

She cites as examples the lack of education for girls and poor health care, which, she says leads to 1,000 women dying in childbirth every year.

To her audience she also stresses that she is running a shoe-string campaign.

“You are my only resources,” she tells them.

At least 68 seats have been reserved for women in the 249-member Wolesi Jirga, with at least two in the provincial councils, which will have between nine and 29 members.

Women’s rights campaigners are encouraged by the fact that 328 women are standing for the Wolesi Jirga. Not so many have come forward for the provincial councils, however, where the weight of tradition may be heavier.

kabul shah's tomb
The ruins of a shah’s tomb, Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Almost all the women standing are independents. That means that, like Ghawari, they have little money, no experience and no established network.

The regional bigwigs and established politicians may have terrorised the area where they’re standing or pocketed fortunes through corrupt dealings but they have the advantage of being well-known and, through patronage, they can find support among the men of influence in the towns and villages.

Ghawari and other women candidates in Kabul say that they’ve faced no intimidation or pressure while campaigning. But, they warn, that may not be the case in the provinces, especially the rural areas.

There women risk being chased off the street if they appear in public. What’s more women can’t go into the mosque to address Friday prayers. Many, though not all, mullahs preach against female participation in public life and, even without that, tradition militates against them.

And there’s also intimidation by warlords and the Taliban.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) reports that the husband of one female candidate in Baghlan province was jailed for two days without charge and later sacked from his job because he helped her campaign.

One woman election worker has been killed during the campaign. Other women report death threats and accusations that they are “American spies”.

Little wonder then that 51 women withdrew their candidacies for unspecified reasons before the campaign started.

herat taxi
Herat seen from a taxi Photo: Tony Cross

No-one can escape evidence of the election in Herat. Candidates’ photographs and slogan-bearing banners hang from string stretched between the pine-trees which line the streets, so that the city looks as if it’s celebrating a particularly popular festival.

Posters are plastered all over any available wall-space – on the concrete and metal umbrellas erected at crossroads to provide traffic-police with shade and on what looks like a peace monument, a structure topped with a globe and four doves which stands at one of the main road junctions.

And they’re contributing to the deterioration of the city’s historic legacy.

Enthusiastic campaigners have fly-posted their candidates’ images onto centuries-old minarets, which have survived earthquake and war but are now threatened by vibrations from a nearby road – and by electoral politics.

The long road to Herat from the airport is lined by trees almost all the way, encouraging fantasies of entering at the head of a trader’s caravan or a conquering army.

You pass through villages with traditional mud-caked buildings, past a park crowded with painted, concrete benches but no people to sit on them and over a bridge which looks down on a broad river-bed, where motorists wash their vehicles in the narrow strip of river that the sun has so far failed to evaporate.

Herat’s a relief after Kabul. Its wide, tree-lined streets are relatively clean and uncongested. There’s less dust and more visible history, most noticeably the huge and beautiful mosque in the city centre.

My translator, Hoshang, is bowled over by the city’s cleanliness and its exotic Persian atmosphere. When we see a man smoking a shisha pipe in a restaurant, he asks me what the strange object is, never having seen one in Kabul or in Peshawar, the two cities he has lived in.

mosque interior court
Interior courtyard of Herat’s historic mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Clearly the governor who built the present seat of local government in the mid-20th century, didn’t want the home of secular power to be completely dwarfed by the mosque. It’s a rambling complex of brick-clad buildings, about as tall as the mosque and pleasant enough to look at, even if it can’t compete with the mosque’s tile-clad walls, which were decorated by craftsmen skilled in a 600-year-old art form.

It’s easy to gain access to high officials. Sitting in the corner of a large room, as a handful of officials administer the citizens who have come to petition him, deputy governor Mir Abdul Khalq, “call me Haj Mir because no-one in Herat will recognise me if you give me the full name”, offers cups of green tea and chats affably. But he says it would be better if I interview Governor Mohammed Khair Khuwa.

Unfortunately, the governor is in Kabul today, so we will have to come back tomorrow.

Haj Mir is a grey-bearded, wrinkled, smiling man, who chats freely about Herat. It is probably Afghanistan’s richest city and he boasts of its public buildings and housing.

I ask if supporters of Ismail Khan, who preceded Khuwa as governoror, still have much influence.

“Oh yes,” says Haj Mir. “I myself am a supporter of Ismail Khan and was with him for seven years during the war.”

This takes me aback since I’d understood that it had taken quite a power struggle for President Hamid Karzai, who was finally elected last year, to dislodge Khan from running the city last year.

Ismail Khan became governor of Herat province in 2001, after fighting the Russian occupation, being jailed by the Taliban and escaping to take control of Herat as the ultra-fundamentalist régime was bombed out of office.

During his governorship, there were many complaints about his warlord ways – a heavy hand with potential opposition and harsh treatment of women in the province.

Last year, there was heavy fighting between Khan’s fighters and those of a rival warlord, Amanullah Khan, a Pashtun. Kabul declared its support for Ismail but, shortly after the fighting ended, Karzai offered the victorious governor the post of minister of power and water – a poisoned promotion which dislodged him for his power-base.

Not everyone was glad to see him go. Riots followed his removal and Khuwa, a Hazara who arrived in town with guards from his own ethnic group, was obliged to take the oath of office in front of a picture of his predecessor.

Khan left behind a mixed reputation. He dealt with critics and suspected enemies in summary fashion – the head of the officially-backed human rights commission told us that, at the official opening of the organisation’s office in the city with national government ministers in attendance, a journalist was beaten up and dragged off to jail. Just so everyone knew who was boss, as it were.

mosque entry to courtyard
The entrance to the courtyard of the Jamja Masjid (Friday Mosque) in Herat Photo: Tony Cross

But the ex-governor is still respected for making Herat one of the best-run cities in the country. He paid for public works and efficient administration by collecting the handsome revenue from customs duties on the frontiers with neighbouring Iran and Turkmenistan ¼ and refusing to pass any of the money on to Kabul.

Maybe it was that which inspired Karzai to conclude that the governor had to go, rather than the stories of armed tribal fighters doing as they wished on the city’s streets or women found alone with men being arrested and examined for signs of recent sexual intercourse.

But, once the rioting was over, the transition seems to have been relatively smooth.

Haj Mir seems to be working with his ex-boss’s successor and is happy to suggest that we interview the new head of security, Ayub Salangy, another out-of-towner who arrived two months ago accompanied by guards from his home province.

Of course, sending round a journalist may be the Haji’s idea of a practical joke; it turns out that Salangy is home sick today. But he agrees to see us.

mosque opp side
Herat’s Jama Masjid Photo: Tony Cross

Delivered at Salangy’s house by a military vehicle, we find him in his garden, meeting leaders of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, one of the PRTs, the foreign military units that carry out aid projects, leading to complaints that they have made NGOs targets of possible guerrilla attacks.

We are shown into the house and wait in a living room so generously furnished that there is a TV at either end of the room.

On a table sits a photo mounted on curved glass with blue and gold edges. It shows the lieutenant-general embracing President Karzai as he arrives for a visit to Herat.

Salangy’s assistant assures us that the commander is a good friend of the president and gives us an outline of his employer’s career, which mostly consists of Karzai begging him to go to a number of troublesome provinces, with varying degrees of success. Salangy did serve in possibly the toughest posting, Kandahar, the Taliban’s stronghold at the time that they took power and still the scene of rebel activity, including a recent attempt to shoot down the president’s airplane.

When he finally meets us, Salangy doesn’t seem too ill. But he undoubtedly has a robust constitution. He’s a buffalo in a shalwar kameez; tall and broad, his hand swallows mine when we shake. Unusually for an Afghan, he is clean-shaven and his hair is cut short, adding to the youthful appearance of his face. It’s a surprising fact here that the men who have probably seen the most combat are the men with the most laugh-lines on their faces.

At some point in his career the lieutenant-general has picked up the art which the French call langue de bois. He studiously avoids giving any interesting answers to my questions: everything will go fine on election day; there are no serious security problems in the province; recent kidnappings and violence were in neighbouring provinces and not on his turf.

When I ask if he’s worried about the way the Americans have used the PRTs, he gently makes a fool of me by explaining that the people he was talking to were Italians, since they have taken over that work in Herat and the west of the country.

Asked if he sees himself as Karzai’s man in Herat, Salangy replies that he’s happy to represent the president and central government here.

But the question seems to have touched a sensitive spot. When I stop recording, the commander declares that, if I’ll permit it, it is his turn to pose a question.

“Who told you I was Karzai’s man?” he asks.

Hoping that the answer will not prove compromising for anyone involved, I tell him that his secretary told me that they were friends.

trainee cops visit herat mosque
A group of trainee police officers pose for a photo while visiting Herat’s famous mosque

Before leaving Herat, we take up Haj Mir’s suggestion and try to see the governor. It’s a long and fruitless process which entails visits to his offices, his home and, just before we leave, the recently-built governor’s mansion in the foothills of the mountains that overlook the city.

Persian script dug into the sides declares jihad the salvation of the faithful and what looks like a kilometre of steps lead up to a self-important dome perched on a rock. One gets the impression that this building is part of Ismail Khan’s legacy.

We’re already late for the rendezvous and, after an inconclusive argument with guards and our taxi-driver about whether we will have to walk up all those steps to the mansion in the baking heat, we conclude that there won’t be time for an interview if we’re to catch the plane to Kabul. As we race towards the airport, a phone-call reveals that the governor hasn’t actually left his home.

herat child
A young boy at work in a Herat workshop Photo: Tony Cross

Both in Herat and Kabul, voters face a huge and confusing choice of candidates.

Ballot papers the size of broadsheet newspapers carry the names, pictures and symbols of hundreds of candidates for the Wolesi Jirga or the provincial councils; in Kabul’s case 390 for the national body and 216 for the provincial one.

Some 70-80% of voters are illiterate and, it being over 30 years since the last such elections, most of the population haven’t taken part in this sort of exercise before.

Of course, there was last year’s presidential election but that was a much simpler affair since only one post was up for grabs. The difference may not have sunk in to the popular consciousness – some punters have apparently told journalists that they intend to vote for Karzai this time round.

The process would have been even more complicated if the original plan to elect district councils at the same time had gone ahead. That vote was postponed. Not to spare the unfortunate electorate the struggle with a third enormous ballot paper. It’s just that the districts don’t really exist yet. Their boundaries haven’t been drawn and their populations have yet to be determined.

On the street most people seem keen to vote but no-one has much idea how to do it. Most Kabulis seem not to have chosen their candidate. In Herat more people seem to have made their choice for both the national and provincial assemblies.

In the cities, at least, no prejudice is expressed against women candidates. Several men declare that they are ready to vote for a woman and some say that they’ve already decided to do so.

Karzai apparently intervened personally to prevent party symbols being printed on the ballot papers, although an accompanying sheet does list the parties and their candidates. This is justified by arguing that it is political groups that have brought the country to its present condition. Karzai himself, of course, has no party although he does have a network of allies. His behind-the-scenes style of politics will probably be best suited by an atomised parliament, in which he can play off individuals or groups against each other.

The ban, along with a first-past-the-post voting system, favours a personality contest and undermines the possibility of a future development of parties formed on the basis of political platforms.

It strengthens candidates who are already well-known – religious leaders, ethnic or regional bosses and warlords, none of whom can be absolved from blame for Afghanistan’s woes.

But their notoriety may backfire, in some cases at least. Soraya Daqiqi, a woman candidate in Herat, says that village elders have told her that it’s time to give a woman a chance. “After all, look at what men have done for us – Timur Lang, Janghis Khan, and that German leader, Hitler.”

Other independent candidates also believe that they may benefit from an anti-warlord backlash.

The Taliban have stepped up attacks in the last few months and say that they will disrupt the election, although they say that they won’t attack voters.

Most of the violence has been clashes between their fighters and foreign or Afghan soldiers and it has mainly taken place in the south and east, where they still operate quite freely.

But seven candidates have been killed and there has been other election-related violence.

kuchis 2 camp
Nomadic kuchis, who have reserved seats and special polling stations adapted to their way of life Photo: Tony Cross

And there’s concern about the number of former commanders, many of whom have been involved in atrocities, who are on the ballot papers. Only 11 candidates were disqualified for being militia leaders before the campaign began, while human rights campaigners claim that in many areas at least half of those standing are warlords.

The internationally-staffed Election Complaints Commission says that only those who have been convicted of crimes can be excluded, which seems reasonable until you remember how difficult it is for victims to obtain justice here.

Of course, there is no clear demarcation between the terms “warlord” and “mujahed” and many violent killers have been invaluable allies to Karzai and the US.

Analysts at the International Crisis Group claims that deals were struck with some commanders, allowing them to remain on the ballot papers in return for promises to collaborate with the official disarmament process.

Nevertheless, there are no reports of candidates actually bumping off their rivals.

That may be a sign of patience, rather than of born-again pacifism. A clause in the election law has become known as the “assassination clause”. It declares that after the poll, if an assembly member dies, the runner-up takes his or her place, giving rise to fears that some frustrated candidates may revert to their old habits to achieve the victory that the electoral process failed to deliver.

The electoral law is remarkably tolerant of practices which the Asian observers of Anfrel, who know a thing or two about money politics, claim “may be regarded as vote-buying in other countries”.

They describe electoral cards being bought from voters in some provinces and mullahs being offered money in return for their endorsement (one of them boasts that his backing would mean at least 5,000 votes for the lucky bidder).

Rich candidates are able to spend large sums on fleets of vehicles, election workers and other resources, while poorer candidates struggle to raise funds.

The Afghan semi-official observers’ organisation, Fefa, says it’s disappointed that a ban on handing out gifts is only valid on election day.

The Afghan fondness for a feast may indeed prove useful in courting the floating voter. Fefa says that one candidate, who owns a hotel, has been giving free lunches and dinners “almost every day” and has hosted one lunch with music and dancing for about 5,000 people.

Uzbek warlord General Abdel Rashid Dostum proved even more generous. He invited notables in Sherbergan province to a party “in honour of his father” which lasted for three days.

One candidate told Anfrel that he was worried about what the candidates will do to recoup their outlay. “Maybe robbery or drug-trafficking. They need to get the money that they spent back.”

The Election Commission says that it can’t ban such practices because they are part of the Afghan tradition of hospitality.

kabul bashar dhost
Ramazan Bashardost (C) with supporters in a Kabul park Photo: Tony Cross

 strange noise disturbs the peace of Kabul’s Shah-e-Naw Park. It’s the horribly distorted sound of a television rigged up among the trees.

Nearby is a tent, which has been occupied by Ramazan Bashardost every day since he resigned from the post of minister of planning and launched a clean-government campaign.

Bashardost is a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga and this is two days before polling day, well within the 48-hour period within which election campaigning has been banned, but he says that the video of him currently playing to a small audience is of a speech he made before the start of campaigning and so not in breach of election law.

Bashardost resigned in a row over the 2,355 NGOs which have mushroomed in Afghanistan in the war’s aftermath. The 2001 Tokyo reconstruction conference allotted them a third of foreign aid. But Bashardost compiled a list of 1,935 that he wanted to close, saying that many of them were fake, some operating for profit and not the benefit of Afghans, others just inefficient and nearly all spending most of the donors’ money on their staff salaries and operating costs rather than on the people they were supposed to help.

“About 70% of their budgets are used for administration or logistics or for a luxurious life,” Bashardost tells me. “There is NGOism in Afghanistan, like a Communist system. It is very strange that the Afghan poor people don’t have access to the directors of NGOs. I think it is more easy to meet Mr Karzai.”

When he was a minister he would send people to meet NGO chiefs.

“They returned to my office and say ‘Mr Minister, when the bodyguard is happy he took my paper and when the bodyguard is not happy he said very bad things to me and I couldn’t see the director’.”

Now he says that Afghanistan is run by a new nomenklatura of NGO bosses, UN and US officials, international military chiefs, Afghan warlords and government ministers.

“It is a very dangerous situation because $12 billion has arrived in Afghanistan since two years and the Afghan people believe that there is not reconstruction. I think that some people say ‘My life is now more bad than three years ago’. This nomenkaltura shares the money between its members and we’re losing the chance to show a good cooperation between Western countries and a Muslim country.”

Although he was educated abroad and speaks English and French, Bashardost mistrusts returned exiles as much as he mistrusts warlords, claiming that many have only returned for business opportunities and that those who are standing for the Wolesi Jirga are motivated by commercial, rather than political, interest.

Bashardost believes the multi-national mafia is also complicit in the drugs trade.

Since the US-led invasion, Afghanistan has returned to the top of the world league of opium-poppy growers, providing most of the heroin sold in Europe and much of Asia.

The ex-minister says that only one per-cent of the profits go to Afghan farmers and that local and international officials are involved in it.

“The new parliament may be a narco-parliament,” he says and slams Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and President Karzai for saying top officials, including six governors, were involved in drug trafficking but refusing to name them, let alone take action against them.

Few candidates speak as freely or directly as Bashardost. Those with dubious pasts – or presents – use portentous declarations to avoid addressing embarrassing subjects. And, in a country in which guns rather than discussion have decided political issues for so many years, new candidates lack any experience of real political debate. When faced with a microphone, most either launch into long autobiographies, give accounts of their educational qualifications or make vague statements about ending the violence and rooting out corruption in exactly the same terms that their rivals use.

shah shaheen voting
Voters in Shah Shaheen Photo: Tony Cross

18 September, election day. At the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which is a polling station for the day, voters are encouraged to do their civic duty by music broadcast from tinny loudspeakers and banners bearing inspirational messages such as “Let’s join together to participate in the parliamentary election which is a legislative organ and one of the three pillars of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”.

But the official enthusiasm doesn’t seem to have rubbed off onto the electorate. At 8.10am, just over two hours since the polls opened, there are few voters here, an astonishing contrast to the long queues to vote in the presidential election.

Inside the building a young election official says that it’s early yet, there’s still time, and assures us that voters have had no difficulty with the complicated voting procedure.

As he speaks, a man in a voting booth behind him is turning his ballot paper this way and that with a mystified air. He calls to an official to come and explain what he should do.

Outside two young men tell us that they have voted for Bashardost because they believe he is honest, while others won’t name their choice.

When we leave the building, SUVs have blocked off the street and armed guards stand outside the polling station. US ambassador Ronald Neumann is here.

He declares the day a triumph.

“Four years ago they were killing women with stones in the sports stadium and today women are running their separate polling places here next door to the men’s polling places.”

What does the ambassador think of the presence of alleged warlords on the ballot papers?

“I think people get to actually vote, so if they don’t want to vote for a warlord they don’t have to, they can vote for somebody else.”

So, even if a candidate has blood on his hands, he should be allowed to stand?

The tone becomes slightly less affable.

“No, I don’t think that’s a correct statement. I think what you need to understand is that this is the first time that they’ve tried to run a process by rules. And it’s a country where you don’t have full evidence, so sometimes you don’t get the result that you would ideally like, just as sometimes, in your country or mine, somebody may go free in a trial where you think they should have been convicted.”

Neumann gives the impression that, so far as he’s concerned, there have been exhaustive legal efforts to find war-criminals and that they are now over.

“The fact is that they did run a process by rules … and that’s a big, important step in the transition to building a rule-based system of law.”

More voters turn out as the day goes on but there are nowhere near last year’s number.

At Shah Shaheen nobody will tell us who their choice was, although one man says that he’s voted for a woman and a man, while the women, all clad in blue burkas, huddle in a short line at the side of the polling station.

The women at Fourth Makoryan, a middle-class district, are more assertive. Many of the polling officers and voters are elegantly dressed, some wearing smart trouser suits with headscarves.

One, who’s enjoying the sun after casting her ballot, proudly declares that she has voted for a woman candidate.

“We all want to vote for women because women are the ones who care for women,” she says.

But she’s not sure how much things will change for women after the election.

“Maybe yes, maybe no. In Kabul the women vote but in some other provinces some of them don’t vote. I hope that they all vote and the women win.”

dehyaya
Traditional Afghan buildings in Dehyaya Photo: Tony Cross

In Dehyaya, a village outside Kabul, we don’t see any women. To get there we have to turn off the fine new road that the American military have built to get to their base at Bagram airfield and on to a track across the dusty plain that lies between ranges of Afghanistan’s cruelly beautiful mountains.

The stones crunch under the weight of our four-wheel drive and the dust gets everywhere – into the car, into our hair, into our nostrils.

We follow the track round a bend and find the beginning of the village.

It’s made up of traditional Afghan dwellings; huge compounds hidden behind walls several hundred metres long.

They’re covered in dried mud, made out of desert dirt, and they look as if they have grown out of this unworldly, grey-brown landscape.

As a scorching sun burns the last drops of moisture from the land, we look down a long, straight street, flanked by long, straight mud walls, heading towards a distant perspective point.

There’s not a soul to be seen; it’s like High Noon – only with more dust.

Who knows how people scratch a living out of this arid landscape but the village seems to be large, even if you take into account the size of the compounds.

One thing’s for sure, land can’t be very expensive round here.

Down the street and around a bend, we come across a petrol station.

It’s deserted, too, but there are signs of election activity – candidates’ posters have been pasted on its walls and on the sign at its entrance.

The largest is one of Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.

He’s a notorious militia leader, whom human-rights campaigners have demanded be taken off the ballot paper, because of his alleged brutality during the war.

In the days of the fight against Russian occupation, Sayyaf was a friend of Osama ben Laden and mixed with the hard-line Islamists who received US funding for their anti-Communist jihad.

But, despite his dubious past, he has stayed in the running.

His position can’t have been hindered by the fact that he has recently acted as an adviser to Karzai, doing his best to keep Afghanistan’s legal system true to his severe interpretation of Islam.

A bit further down the street, and at last there are signs of life.

A small crowd of men and boys has gathered in front of the school, where voting is taking place.

As we go into the building, Hoshang suggests that maybe we shouldn’t stay too long.

dehyaya from mountain
Dehyaya from the mountain Photo: Tony Cross

“Taliban fire rockets at Kabul from these mountains.”

Inside, however, all is running smoothly, if not very busily, and the polling officers say that there have been no threats or intimidation.

One of the voters is a former mujahed. He won’t name the person he voted for but says that “he is my friend from the jihad time”. But, like all ordinary voters what he wants most is peace – “No more fighting in my country”.

To get back to Kabul, we’re told to go over the mountain.

As we climb the slope, we can at last see some patches of green in the village, hidden behind some of those long walls.

When our wheels get stuck in the dirt half way up the slope, I wonder if I should duck down in the back if men with guns appear or whether they’ll see me anyway. But they don’t appear and, when the car climbs over the peak, we see an inscription dug into the hillside.

I ask if this is another call to jihad, like the ones we saw outside Herat.

Hoshang squints at the writing. “No,” he replies, “it says ‘carwash’.”

And there, just below it, is a huge car lot, the vehicles glistening in the sun, and, beyond it, the grubby bustle of Kabul.

On our return, we hear that three rocket-propelled grenades were fired from the mountains during the morning.

Two failed to explode. One of them hit a UN compound and injured one person, although not seriously.

shah shaheen phtographer
A photographer shows off his antique camera in Shah Shaheen, Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

 

Turnout is low throughout the country. Officials claim about 50%, some sceptics put it as low as 35% and claim that there were no votes at all in some parts of the south, where the Taliban are active.

The electoral commission says that seven polling stations never opened at all, apparently because the security services were too scared to protect them. Security worries led to a temporary disruption of the vote in many other places and there are already allegations of fraud.

Apparently anticipating a wave of enthusiasm throughout the land, the electoral commission made a last-minute decision to bring forward the start of the vote an hour. Unfortunately, the decision didn’t get through to all voting officials, some of whom arrived, bleary-eyed, at 7.00am or later, to find impatient voters waiting for them or to hear that some had already given up.

Piqued, perhaps, by criticism of the small number of candidates banned from standing, officials took another 28 off the ballot paper during the week before the vote. Human rights groups weren’t mollified, claiming that they weren’t the roughly 150 warlords and thugs that they had in mind.

And, unfortunately, the list of these late removals was either not posted up at many voting centres or put in a position which hardly anyone saw. Even where it was visible it was meaningless to the illiterate majority of voters.

To add to the confusion, two candidates were put back onto the ballot, one because he had been confused with someone else of the same name.

Now the votes have to be gathered in, using donkeys and helicopters to bring them down from the most remote mountain villages. Definitive results are not expected for at least a month and the absence of debate and clearly defined political camps makes it difficult to guess what the Wolesi Jirga will look like.

kabul street
A Kabul street Photo: Tony Cross

Robert Kluyver, a fluent Dari-speaker and former UN worker who has set up the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society and also represents George Soros’s Open Society Institute, believes there are three main reasons for the low turnout. Many candidates were unknown and discouraging political parties added to confusion about what they might stand for, many hopes that were raised by last year’s presidential election have already been disappointed and in some areas, especially the cities, there’s suspicion that the results were rigged in advance.

“While a lot of candidates were ex-fighters, either mujahedin or Communists, I think that there will be a strong presence of civil society.”

But he believes that the parliament will be weak.

“With this low voter-turnout they will lack the political legitimacy they need. This parliament doesn’t have any clearly defined functions. Thirdly, the parliamentarians won’t have any experience in conducting parliamentary affairs and I think that there will be a strong tendency for the parliament to be bogged down in local issues, for example about schools and hospitals in particular districts, because that’s very much how the candidates now see themselves, representing the interests of their local community.”

He believes that, although most Afghans are sick of religious interference in politics, there will be a bloc of representatives who will push a hard-line position on issues such as sharia law.

And what of the question that voter after voter raised during the campaign – the warlords’ hold on the country?

Saman Zia-Zarifi is the deputy director of Human Rights Watch. Being of Iranian origin, he can speak Dari and has come to observe the election along with a team from the high profile US-based group.

He says that most voters had to choose between unknown candidates and notorious ones.

Zia-Zarifi is bitterly critical of the election complaints commission’s failure to strike “warlords, former military commanders and human-rights abusers” from the ballot.

“It created a certain amount of confusion and even questions about the political nature of this process,” he says and concludes. “It remains to be seen if the Afghan electors have achieved what the electoral commission failed to do.”

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Why the US will start a war with China (perhaps)

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La_bataille_de_Palikiao
The Battle of Palikiao (Baliqiao), 21 December 1860 during the Second Opium War (1856-1860), Emile Bayard

In my first post on this blog I predicted that the US will one day provoke a war with China in an attempt to maintain its global hegemony. The formulation was deliberately provocative and, of the three reasons to be pessimistic about the future that I outlined, it has provoked the most scepticism, both on Facebook and to my own, physical face, although not, unfortunately, in comments on the blog (hint, hint).

For the last couple of years I’ve asked my students at Paris 13 University to debate this question. It’s always difficult to find someone to support the proposition and at the end the vote against is overwhelming.

They put forward plenty of good arguments against. But I think there are also strong arguments for and perhaps a tendency to think that it won’t happen simply because we really don’t want it to.

Here’s the strongest argument for a decisive confrontation between the US and China:

GDP WOrld

The World Bank predicts that China will be the world economy’s top dog by 2050 … and that by a very long way.

Chinese growth has averaged 10% for the last 30 years and, although it’s slowing down, it will continue to outstrip the older-established industrial economies unless there is a sudden and dramatic reversal of fortunes.

The US is losing its economic hegemony of the planet and, although the Chinese leadership appears to have no aspirations to global political or military hegemony at the moment, I don’t see how Washington can keep hold of the latter if it ceases to have the former.

We’re witnessing the decline of an empire and that is never a peaceful process.

The US has reacted to the decline in its economic status in time-honoured fashion – competing with China economically with the creation of a free-trade partnership around the Pacific, recruiting “allies” that it hopes will be dependent on its support in the region and encircling China with military bases, some equipped with troops and boats, others with drones.

Here’s the US-initiated Trans-Pacific Partnership – countries in dark green are already members, those in light green have expressed an interest, those in blue, according to the designers, are potential future members (China – really?).

TPP
Graphic: Public domain/ “TPP enlargement” by en:User:Japinderum, en:User:Phospheros, en:User:Orser67 – en:File:TPP enlargement.png (based on File:World map model.png). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TPP_enlargement.png#/media/File:TPP_enlargement.png

If all goes as planned, the US will have sewn up a trading partnership across what Washington now regards as the “centre of gravity” of world economic activity, an area that produces 60 per cent of the world’s GDP and represents half of world trade – “a posse to get China,” according to Sydney Morning Herald editor Peter Hartcher.

But, of course, Washington knows that it can’t prevent its new friends dallying with China economically – Taiwan thinks it’s the real Republic of China but that hasn’t stopped its capitalists taking the plane to the People’s Republic (PRC) for self-enrichment purposes. No more can US companies afford to renounce doing business with Beijing.

In 2011 on a visit to Australia Barack Obama announced a “pivot to Asia”.

It hasn’t quite gone as planned, what with the hoped-for disengagement from the Middle East and Afghanistan proving more difficult than Washington’s finest minds imagined.

Nevertheless, there has been a frantic diplomatic offensive, which has involved bringing Myanmar/Burma out of the cold, sucking up to India’s Narendra Modi and cultivating every country that has a territorial bone to pick with China, which just happens to be every one of its neighbours to the east and south.

Here are the principal points of friction in the South China Sea:

  • The Spratley Islands,which are rich fishing grounds and, probably,have significant oil and natural gas reserves, are claimed in part or entirely bythe PRC, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan, all of whom, apart from Brunei, have military forces on one or more of the otherwise uninhabited rocks;
  • The Paracelislands, more good fishing and probable oil and gas, are controlled by the PRC but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan;
  • The Senkaku/Diaoyuislands, more rocks with fishing, oil and shipping lanes, controlled by Japan but claimed by the PRC and Taiwan; Things got nasty in 2012-13 when Japan bought three of the islands from a “private owner”, sparking demonstrations in China, and the PRC declared an east China Sea flight identification zone; A US-Japan security treaty obliges the US to intervene in case of threat to Japan’s sovereignty over the islands;
  • Japan – a lot of history here, as with the rest of east Asia, and a focus for Chinese nationalism, which sometimes threatens to escape Chinese Communist Party control; Right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is an aggressive nationalist who wants to renounce Japan’s post-war limits on its military role – he has increased defence spending, created a new national security council and beefed up alliances with neighbouring countries.
  • Taiwan, like the People’s Republic, claims the right to control the whole South China Sea; it a
  • lso claims to be the official government of all China, although that policy is the subject of much political controversy, while the PRC claims that Taiwan is part of its territory and 2,000 missiles pointed at the island. In 2011 the US agreed to a US$5 billion upgrade to Taiwan’s F-16 military airplanes.

No-one’s going to be short of a casus belli here.

Now it so happens that one-third of the world’s maritime trade and half its traffic in oil and gas takes place in the region and major petroleum and other mineral deposits are believed to lie beneath the seabed.

The US, through its navy and its allies hopes to have a stranglehold on virtually all of China’s oil supply through control of the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca,  one reason, perhaps, for Beijing’s relatively good record of investment in renewable energy  but also for its antsiness when it comes to islands near shipping lanes.

So, although the Chinese leadership may not aspire to world hegemony, it very definitely wants hegemony of east Asia, especially the South China Sea.

And the US definitely doesn’t want that, witness the map of US bases in the region, now featuring new, added US troops in Australia:

US bases s ch sea

Of course, there are plenty of US troops to the west of China, too, notably in Afghanistan – albeit in reduced numbers – and Kyrgyzstan.

However, as historian Alfred McCoy points out, China seems to be in the process of outmanoeuvring the US by extending its influence westwards, with an ambitious network of transport and pipelines. Gas and Oil pipelines will soon link China to the Caspian Sea, via Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, to the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea and thus to the Gulf via Myanmar and Pakistan, and to Siberia.

 

China transport pipelines
China-Central Asia Infrastructure (doesn’t include Sino-Myanmar pipeline) Source: Stratfor

According to McCoy, China, working with Russia with which it has created a bloc in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, is working on the domination of “Eurasia”, the land mass that strategists have for over a century regarded as key to world domination.

Now, the US may not have colonies but insofar as it imposes its will on the whole world it is an empire, the most powerful empire in history.

And the economic predictions show that that empire is now on the decline, for a loss of military and political hegemony must surely follow a loss of economic hegemony, even if the speed of that process is open to question.

In general empires don’t bow out peacefully.  After two world wars and a wave of colonial revolts, the European empires did give up without a confrontation with their successor, choosing, especially in the case of the UK, to tag onto Washington’s coattails.

But is there any likelihood of the US agreeing to go quietly? Despite not having a war on its own soil for well over a century, it is a militarised society with what is euphemistically called a “defence” budget reaching an enormous  $496 billion for 2015.

That feeds a vast military-industrial complex whose profits largely depend on a permanent war mentality, as do the jobs – 3.6 million, according to interested parties – in the sector.

“Led by Lockheed Martin, the biggest U.S. defense companies are trading at record prices as shareholders reap rewards from escalating military conflicts around the world,” reports the Portland Press Herald.

“As we ramp up our military muscle in the Mideast, there’s a sense that demand for military equipment and weaponry will likely rise,” says Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Chicago-based BMO Private Bank, who oversees $66 billion including Northrop Grumman and Boeing shares. “To the extent we can shift away from relying on troops and rely more heavily on equipment — that could present an opportunity.”

So much for the material interest. Then there’s ideology and national psychology.

Can any US leader – or even any mainstream American politician – renounce the manifest destiny doctrine? Yet accepting the rise of an equal or greater power means doing just that.

The Tea Party would look like – well, a tea party – compared to the reactionary movement that would be whipped up by shock-jocks, Fox News, the Republican right wing, in response to a president who proposed that the US accept playing second fiddle on the world stage.

And the Democrats are a thoroughly bourgeois party, as committed to the American ideology as the Republicans, while much of the labour movement seems easily recruited to the patriotic cause.

True, large parts of the US economy have everything to lose by upsetting China and the PRC holds about 8.0% of US government debt, not as much as some people seem to believe but still a healthy slice. But is US capital sufficiently united in its interests to drop its pretensions to world domination and rein in the populist right?

US_Public_Debt_proportions_March_2013
http://www.businessinsider.com/chart-us-trade-deficit-with-china-2013-4

Another persuasive argument against starting a war is the nuclear one. But the balance of terror nearly didn’t work during the Cuban missile crisis, can we be sure that it will when the US empire feels itself to be in terminal decline?

Cyberwarfare is also a growing threat to the US. Is that a new balance of terror? Perhaps, but, the way Washington has reacted to it so far, it could also be a casus belli.

Nor can we be sure that China’s ambitions will remain as modest as they are today. Already XI Jinping appears to be more aggressive about his country’s international role than his predecessors and the CCP’s legitimacy is now primarily nationalist. Rank-and-file nationalism could be a strong pressure on the country’s leadership in the event of a confrontation over territorial claims.

And a territorial claim, combined with a stiff dose of rhetoric about human rights and a little bit of imperial-minded racism, could easily provide a pretext for the US becoming involved in a military confrontation, perhaps limited at first but possibly spiralling out of control.

The real reasons for wars are rarely if ever openly declared – a pretext involving much moral indignation and national affront is usual and the US has particularly fine form in this field  – think of the USS Maine in Cuba, the Gulf of Tonkin incident and, as for Iraq, let’s not even go there.

So a scenario of Washington intervening on behalf of one of its clients and the PRC leadership being unable or unwilling to back down on nationalist grounds doesn’t seem so unrealistic to me

I wouldn’t bet the $1.2 trillion of US debt China holds against it.

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