Category Archives: United States

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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The white working class – does it exist and should you despise it?

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In the US, the Republican right have taken to sneering at the “white working class”. But they’re not alone. Middle-class liberals same and the media feel free to caricature “white trash” or “chavs”. Class hatred lives on … when it’s top-down.

It’s so difficult to hate in peace these days. Overt racism is generally frowned upon – even by racists (“I’m not racist but …”).  Islamophobia is having a moment, it’s true. And then there’s class hatred, as long as it’s de haut en bas, especially if you target the “white working class”, the subject of sneers from the American right recently but also portrayed by media and liberals as the repository of all bigotry, backwardness and bad taste.

Having created a monster, the Republican establishment is desperately trying to shift the blame for flipping the switch that brought Donald Trump to political life. Two writers in the New Republic have found the perfect suspect – “the white working class”.

“The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles”, writes Kevin Williamson, going on to decry “the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog”.

Cheering him on, David French claims Williamson has debunked “the idea that the white working-class (the heart of Trump’s support) is a victim class”. His church tried to help these people, he reports, but found its efforts wasted because they prefer welfare to work, drop out of education on a whim, shag the neighbour at the first sign of marital discord and neck prescription drugs with the same gusto that respectable people sip Chardonnay.

Reassuringly, French “hate[s] the mockery that poor and working-class people of all races endure” and doesn’t think that the drug-addicted fornicators are solely responsible for their fate. The government, the “cultural elite”, “progressive culture”, “progressive policies”, the “progressive welfare state” and the “elitist sexual revolutionaries” are not blameless, he adds … to no-one’s surprise.

For the New Republic, while both the causes and the guilt seem to be collective, the solutions must be individual – don’t claim disability, be faithful, stop snorting OxyContin move to get a job – and the way to achieve this is to give “white working class” – collectively – a good telling-off.

It isn’t just the right that lumps white working-class people into a homogeneous, contemptible mass.

“[S]ince Donald Trump’s charade of a candidacy caught fire, I have heard many fellow liberals freely toss around the terms ‘white trash’ and ‘trailer trash’,” writes US journalist Connie Schultz. “These are people who would never dream of telling a racist joke, but they think nothing of ridiculing those of lesser economic means.”

Jack Metzgar in In These Times points out that the statistics don’t bear out the assertion that Trump’s support comes disproportionately from non-college-educated whites, the definition of working-class adopted by a Brookings article that says it does, while Charles Davis of TeleSur claims that among white voters who make less than US$25,000 a year, it is Bernie Sanders who is in the lead by a margin of 15 per cent.

But Trump isn’t really the point.

“Every group has its ‘other’,” Schultz observes. “For too many white intellectuals, it’s the working class.”

When Hillary Clinton was fighting Barak Obama for the Democratic nomination, she was accused of playing to racist sentiment to appeal to the white working class. In France the white working class is often blamed for the rise of the Front National’s support, as it is for Ukip’s successes in the UK, where “chav” is now a term of abuse and the poor are the given the reality-TV treatment. These are standard liberal media analyses, repeated again and again in various forms, but generally identifying a hazily defined racial-cum-socio-economic category with whatever prejudice is to be decried at any given moment.

My own experience is that there are selfish shits and bigots in all social classes, although upbringing and level of education may influence the degree of subtlety with which these characteristics are manifested. Generosity and open-mindedness can be found everywhere, too, although I’ve found solidarity, in the sense of standing together in the face of common oppression, is somewhat lacking in the middle and upper classes.

But, however you define it, the working class is not ethnically homogeneous.

So what is that adjective doing in front of that noun?

We don’t talk about the black female gender, so why would a socio-economic category have an additional racial characterisation?

I understand one can reasonably talk about a white bourgeoisie in some Latin American countries, we could certainly talk about a white slave-owning class in the southern United States and the Caribbean in the past but, despite racist employment practices, membership of the working class is not such a privilege that it is restricted to any one race.

When factories close workers of all ethnic groups are thrown out of work. When incomes are squeezed, the banks foreclose with a lack of discrimination that would be praiseworthy in another context.

Some working-class people may react to the loss of relative security with racism or other prejudices – as may middle-class business owners or professionals who feel the pinch – but, when they do so, they are identifying as white, not working-class. When you express contempt for someone who is less privileged than yourself, whether in education, income or status, you’re defining them by class. And that’s a form of bigotry, too.

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Kidnapped, tortured, sold to the Americans … Pakistan’s missing persons, casualties of the war on terror

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I visited Pakistan in 2007 as then-president Pervez Musharraf’s military regime was about to fall, locked in conflict with the main political parties and with the formerly compliant legal apparatus, in particular with Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohamed Chaudhry, whose judgements irritated Musharraf so much that he had him removed at one point.

One key point of friction between the president and the courts was “missing persons”, civilians who had vanished thanks to the attentions of the secret services, who kept them in secret jails or sold them to the US for a bounty, ensuring a regular supply of detainees for the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, regardless of whether they were guilty or not.

On a sweltering day in Peshawar I met a former Guantanamo detainee hiding from the police and the secret services and in Rawalpindi I met the wife of a man who had disappeared and a lawyer fighting his case and those of several others. Their testimony was both moving and shocking.

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Pakistani lawyers protest against the removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, who ordered security forces to produce missing peresons Photo: Tony Cross

You can only meet Badr Dost by appointment, since he is trying to avoid the attentions of the Pakistani security forces.

We meet him at the family home in the back streets of the city of Peshawar. But only after one of his nephews has checked that we haven’t brought unwanted company and summoned him from his hiding place.

Dost has been taking this sort of precaution since his brother, Muslim, was arrested a year ago.

Badr believes that the police would have taken him, too, if his nephews hadn’t warned him of Muslim’s arrest.

The family heard nothing from or about Muslim for eight months and the authorities denied that they were holding him.

An appeal to a Peshawar court finally forced police to admit that he was in jail in one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous tribal agencies and bring him to Peshawar’s main prison.

They say that Muslim, an Afghan who has lived in Pakistan for 30 years, has broken an obscure law about residency in the country.

That was not the first time that he had been arrested.

After the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, Badr and Muslim, who don’t hide their Islamist sympathies, criticised the US-led operation.

Pakistani security forces picked them up and handed them over to US forces, who held them in two bases in Afghanistan, before flying them to the US’s detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

After a year, the brothers were told that the Americans had nothing against them.

But, along with other inmates in the same situation, they were kept for another year and a half before being sent home.

His account of his detention confirms the widespread reports of abuse and torture there.

“They were kicking us with their soldiers’ boots and hitting us with their fists,” he says. “We were beaten and we were kept up awake for a long time. They were not allowing us to sleep and we were kept in isolation.”

Inmates were held in extreme temperatures, he claims, and pornography was stuck on the walls of some religious prisoners’ cells as a form of “mental torture”. Dost believes that the guards went out of their way to offend the prisoners’ religious feelings.

“The American soldiers, the MPs, they were searching us every day,” he says. “They were searching the holy book as if we are hiding something inside, but that was not true because they have searched many, many times. They were desecrating the holy book. They were touching it, they were throwing it on the ground, they were stepping on it, they were tearing it to pieces and putting it in drums of shit in front of us.”

He says that the abuse of the Koran only ended after the inmates staged a hunger strike.

On their return, the brothers published a book, The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo.

If they were expecting an apology or compensation for wrongful detention, loss of business and disruption to their family life – they were to be disappointed.

The book appeared on 3 September. Muslim was arrested – again – on the 20th.

“After eight months he was produced in the tribal area and then he was brought to central jail of Peshawar,” he says. “So right now we are suing his case in Supreme Court and hopefully he will be released. But still there are head and hands who want to black him and want to put him in jail for a long time.”

The “head and hands” Badr Dost fears are elements in the Pakistani state apparatus, who, as well as carrying on a dirty war against armed Islamists, when it suits them, carry on a lucrative trade with the Americans, who pay money for supposed “terrorists”, who will be transferred to jails in Afghanistan or Guantanamo.

Most feared of all are military intelligence, the ISI.

“It was a business,” he comments. “And they have announced if the local authorities are arresting any terrorists, so they will be awarded [for] a common man 5,000 [rupees] and a wanted man maybe millions. So even Americans were telling us that they have paid a lot to Pakistani authorities for arresting us.”

For a longer version of my interview with Badr Dost click here.

“When your dearest thing, the most precious thing in the world, is taken away, what is there left in life for me?” asks Amina Janjua, sitting in a dowdy office in Rawalpindi, the military garrison town that is practically a suburb of Islamabad – or perhaps it’s vice versa.

The last time she saw her husband, Masood, he was getting on a bus to Peshawar from their home-town, Rawalpindi.

He and the friend who was with him, Faisal Fawaz, never arrived at their destination.

Amina is convinced that secret policemen from the Inter-Securities Agency (ISI) spirited them off to a secret jail on suspicion of Islamist tendencies, taking their long beards as signs of fundamentalist tendencies.

Amina insists that Masood had nothing to do with politics.

“I don’t want to live any more,” she says. “It’s just for my husband’s sake that I’m fighting and this is the hope that is keeping me alive. I’m going to get him back.”

Her suspicions were confirmed when a released prisoner said that he had seen Masood during his period of detention.

Amina and her three children have fought hard to locate Masood and get him released.

They camped out in front of the Supreme Court and contacted other families in the same situation.

They claim to have discovered ISI “safe houses”, dotted around the country, with families living on the ground floor, while prisoners are tortured in the cellar.

“I have come to know that there are safe houses in every nook and corner of this city,” she explains. “Every street is having a safe house, where apparently there is a house, normal, and a family living but underneath there is a secret house where these persons are kept and being tortured. For years now.”

For an audio report on Pakistan’s missing persons click here.

Over 400 cases are now going through the courts, 100 of them fought by Amina’s lawyer, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqi.

Siddiqi, who is a member of the Islamic party Jamaat-i-Islami, recently won the release of Hafez Abdul Basit, who had vanished for three and a half years, detained because he has associated with someone linked to the 2003 attempts on Pervez Musharraf’s life.

“His beard was shaved off, third-degree methods were used on him,” he says. “Threats were also extended to him that ‘we will bring your sister, your mother and all your favourite members of your family, who will be raped in front of you – just listen to the voices from the neighbouring room, that we have already brought so many ladies in this connection’.”

For one month Basit was not allowed to sit, still less sleep, before being confined to a tiny, sordid cell, Siddiqi claims.

The police only admitted knowing his whereabouts after Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry told the deputy inspector general of the CID that he would be jailed himself if he didn’t produce Basit within 24 hours.

The impunity with which Pakistan’s secret services operate has its origins in the country’s violent history and overspill from the Afghan war.

Many of the armed Islamists who would like to assassinate Musharraf were trained by the ISI to fight in Indian-occupied Kashmir.

But its latest manifestations are intimately linked to the US’s “war on terror”, which has led to bounties paid for prisoners, political support for Musharraf and a ten-billion dollar subsidy to the country since 9-11.

For my reports for RFI on Pakistan in 2007 and 2008 click here.

For some of my reporting from Afghanistan for RFI click here and here.

For Afghanistan in 2001 on this blog here and in 2005 here.

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Corbynmania and the Sanders surge are a rejection of consumer politics

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Everyone’s surprised by the support garnered by Jeremy Corbin and Bernie Sanders, not least their most ardent supporters. The British Labour Party may soon have a leader who can be described as left-wing without inverted commas. Americans may be invited to vote for someone who says he’s a socialist and could even win. Can this possible be true? And, as importantly, what does it mean?

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“Keep voting, I’ll do the rest” De Gaulle tells France in this poster from May 68

The unpredictable is the only safe prediction in today’s political world, as parties that were solid melt into air and others that scarcely registered on the pollsters’ radar no so long ago win control of towns, cities, a country even.

Clearly, the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis and the mainstream parties’ responses – generosity to the banks and billionaires, austerity for those without their clout – have discredited capitalism, or at least its most brutal manifestations, in the eyes of many.

As Bernard Porter points out, to the generation that has grown up since the Cold War and is experiencing the Thatcher/Reagan legacy, Corbyn is not a dinosaur but a revelation.

Austerity has discredited its enforcers, including the careerist leaders of Europe’s formerly social-democratic parties, leading to an unexpected revival of the left in Greece, Scotland and Spain.

Of course, it’s also given a boost to the Trumps, Le Pens and Farages but that, too, is a symptom of the collapse in the authority of established parties and ideologies.

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“I participate, you participate, he participates, we participate, they profit” Atelier populaire, May 68

But I think there is another, connected reason for the explosion of support for these two men and other political outsiders.

Isn’t it also a symptom of the rejection of the market approach to politics? Of spin doctors telling parties not to present policies they believe in to voters but pitch offers to that part of the electorate that is not inclined to vote for them – the “Them’s me principles but, if you don’t like ‘em, I’ll change ‘em” approach to democracy.

The efforts of Corbyn’s opponents to explain how unelectable he is, as he packs in huge crowds, races ahead of them in the leadership election stakes and then proves to be the most popular candidate among many non-Labour voters, have been an invaluable contribution to the great British comic tradition, as have their efforts to get rid of thousands of the wrong kind of voter.  If we don’t like the voters, we can change them, as well.

Corbyn’s and Sanders’s support is evidence of a widespread desire for personal integrity in politics, a quality that is notable by its absence in most parliaments these days.

But, judging by reports of party meetings and public rallies, there’s also a demand for political honesty.

The strategic masterminds told party activists and bedrock supporters that they must keep their political libidos under control for fear of frightening the floating voter. In Britain that got them the Iraq War, economic crisis and two electoral defeats, not to mention the personal enrichment of prime ministers and their Svengalis.

So, many people want to vote for what they’d really like to see happen this time round. And it looks as if that could be a more realistic strategy in attracting many voters – including some of those tempted by Ukip or even Trump – than trying to sell a party as if it were something that gets rid of unpleasant stains.

Hannah Arendt apparently argued that electoral politics transforms the political relationship into that of seller to buyer, a point taken up by the PKK and the PYD in their turn to alternative forms of participation and organisation.  Voters become consumers, passive individuals in an increasingly atomised society, delegating decision-making to a political caste that can claim their consent because they have participated in the electoral process.

We are thus coopted into our own political and economic exploitation, all the more so today when the politicians then declare themselves powerless in the face of the market on the most important questions that affect our lives. Russell Brand may not be as superficial as Jeremy Paxman would have us believe.

This goes some way to explain the enthusiasm for direct election of presidents, mayors etc that has spread outwards from the US, the Afghans having it imposed on them as an indispensable element of democracy by a coalition of countries many of whom didn’t practise it themselves (the UK’s Jack Straw congratulated them on at last electing their head of state – was he being subtly subversive or just not thinking what he was saying?).

The more representatives are elected, and the more personalised those elections are, the more consumer choice has been exercised and the more passive the electors should be once their ballots have been cast.

Hence the primaries – invented in the US, of course, and now exported to Europe (the mainstream French parties now have primaries, too, but, so far, they’ve delivered the required results, so no hooha about who’s voted in them).

Hilariously, in Britain a procedure that was designed to dilute the power of party activists in a mass of passive voters has become mobilised thousands to express disgust with austerity, careerism and top-down politics.

With added irony, the rise of social media, which in a sense add to the atomisation of society – the individual sits isolated in front of the screen and is bombarded with what algorithms decide is good for him or her – have fuelled the process, creating networks that establish a new form of the collective.

If Corbyn or Sanders wins, what happens next?

In Britain the establishment in its various manifestations has already shown its intention to override the democratic process by any means necessary.

I suspect that is when the weakness of social media-driven enthusiasm will become apparent. Will the thousands who have voted have the stamina or power to resist a long-term campaign of sabotage and vilification by professionals whose careers are intimately linked to the status quo?

In this respect, the Greek experience is not encouraging, so far at least.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Ethnic powerbroking, warlords and corruption in Afghanistan’s ‘fairly democratic’ 2004 presidential election

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After three years in power, Hamid Karzai – or his Western sponsors – decided it was time that Afghans should have the chance to directly elect him, or an alternative of their choice. Although they were the majority of the population, women’s voices were not really heard in the campaign. Outspoken candidates and activists faced death threats and other intimidation. And the real decisions were made in traditional Afghan power-broking, usually along ethnic lines, away from the few elections rallies and media debates. And, of course, there were widespread accusations of corruption and dirty tricks on polling day.

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A soldier and a civilian show they’ve voted on polling day 2004 Photo: Tony Cross

Kabul, Loghar, Panjshir Valley 3.10.04 – 12.10.04.

A huge image of Ahmed Shah Masood looks out from the front of  Kabul airport.

The Mojahedin leader’s assassination just before the fall of the Taliban has made his portrait an icon for post-Taliban Afghanistan and helped legitimise the political influence of those who fought at his side, first against the Russians and then against the Taliban.

Two almost simultaneous flights arrived from Dubai this morning. One was run by the state-owned Ariana, the other, which we were on, by Kam Air, an airline apparently run by an Iranian businessman reported to be a friend of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Uzbek warlord (and presidential candidate) Abdel Rashid Dostum. A lot of Kam Air’s staff speak English with rolling Russian accents.

Along with Afghans in pakools and shalwar kameez, loaded with bundles of scruffily-wrapped, Gulf-bought goods, both planes delivered a troop of journalists arriving to cover the presidential election.

The airport wasn’t even open when I was last here in 2001. We arrived by road and left on a UN light aircraft from Bagram.

There are other changes.

Many more Kabulis seem to have cars now, giving rise to a lot more pollution, at times combining with the ever-present dust to hide the mountains that surround the city. Beggars slip between the cars to solicit drivers or passengers. They’re often children in rags; sometimes they’re adults who’ve lost a limb to a landmine, or some other weapon; some have lost both legs and slide between the vehicles’ wheels on low carts which look like modified skateboards.

In town there are some Western-style shopfronts, a cut-out muscle-man advertising a gym, quite a lot of mobile phone shops. Western civilisation has brought its own places of worship to this devout land – one shopping mall has been built and another one is under construction.

Another innovation is the bulky concrete blocks which jut far out into the street, forming protective walls around US, UN and international security force compounds in anticipation of attacks, particularly against promised disruption during the election period. The armed guards on the gates are a long-standing feature of Afghan life.

I see fewer women on the streets. Immediately after the fall of the Taliban, nearly all women wore the burkah, or chadri as I’m now told it should be called. There were hundreds of women-beggars, asking for charity because their husbands had been killed and they had been banned from working or remarrying (this last still applies).

Now I see few women, except on the markets. Many of those I do see are totally covered, others just wearing headscarves.  A new habit has appeared of hitching up the front of the chadri onto the top of one’s head to allow conversation or freer movement. It seems to contradict the point of the thing. A local paper interviews girls who are regularly abused because they don’t cover their hair sufficiently.

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Women civil servants count the votes Photo: Tony Cross

Soraya Parlika has changed. She now wears a smart green suit and has a stylish haircut. She receives us in the headquarters of the All-Afghan Women’s Association in central Kabul. In 2001, she met a stream of Western journalists at her home. There are no other journalists here today.

We were all interested in her then because she had stayed in Afghanistan under the Taliban, hiding in safe-houses, had spoken up for women’s rights under the mojaheddin rule of the early 1990s and had been jailed under the pro-Soviet régime, despite a family history intimately linked with that of  the Afghan Communist Party.

She’s not standing in the presidential election and now the news-media are queueing to talk to the one woman candidate, Masooda Jalal.

Parlika says that, after the experience of the loya jirga when 10 women, including her, stood for vice-president, she isn’t running in this race so as not to split the women’s vote.

“They did name a woman as vice-president of the loya jirga but that was a symbolic gesture and I don’t accept gestures.”

She refrains from directly criticising Jalal. “Maybe she wants to represent the interests of Afghan women,” she says – but she adds that there is little serious difference between the 18 candidates.

When asked if women will participate in the election, she says that, although it’s an advance that they have the vote, many will just follow their husbands’ orders.

In any case the election was rushed and “we don’t have much time to change people’s mentalities before the election”.

And that’s a big job, starting with the incumbent president.

“I think it’s clear that Mr Karzai will win and he hasn’t said a word about women. How can you change his mentality?

“At the same time, for the future we have to work, not in the towns but in the rural areas, with men and women, to talk about the importance of women participating in society. But we need a lot of time for that and this election has been organised very quickly. Some people don’t even know what an election is and why it’s important.”

As dusk falls and the call for prayer echoes in the little garden below the window, Parlika tells us that the centre in which we’re sitting has been attacked nine times in the last 10 months and that she herself has been attacked four times.

 

The world’s press is nearly coming to blows for the chance to interview Masooda Jalal, in the groundfloor flat which is serving as her headquarters.

It takes a long wait and a lot of wielding of elbows to get to see her. As we talk to her, a TV cameraman bursts into the room and films the proceedings.

Jalal’s replies seem well-rehearsed, if rather evasive. Like all the other candidates, she promises to tackle corruption and put “professionals” into key posts, although what professions they should hold is never specified. Like the other candidates, she avoids mentioning warlordism and the soaring production of opium.

She also avoids any specific mention of women, until asked.

A male candidate, Abdul Latif Pedram, nearly got himself disbarred for blasphemy for saying that women should have the right to divorce and that maybe polygamy should be banned.

Why hasn’t she raised these questions?

“I raised it (sic) in emergency loya jirga,” she replies. “I put it in my programme and announced as a presidential candidate: I said that, if I get the success, the women of Afghanistan will participate in the leadership of Afghanistan, in decision-making power, equally to men and the women will be participating in designing national strategies and country-wide policies equally with men and, equally with men, they will be present and participating in the implementation of foreign policies.”

Jalal manages to keep a straight face as she assures us that she will win, if no-one tampers with the election result.

“I am welcomed by Afghanistan people with flowers, not with rockets. No security problem I have. I have gone into the hearts of people; they like me.”

She claims to have had no threats of violence and says that she travels without bodyguards.

Why is her experience so different to that of activists like Soraya Parlika?

“Well, maybe because she was … well …” Jalal hesitates and says the word interrogatively, if not insinuatingly, “… a Communist? She was a highlighted figure of Communist government in the past. So maybe she has personal problems with other competitor groups, political groups.

“But I’m an impartial person and I’m not a member of any party and I have no enemy in Afghanistan and throughout the world.”

But, despite apparently enjoying a completely unique popularity, Jalal does have critics. Some of them say that she is in fact close to the Panjshir Valley-based Jamaat-e-Islami party. And some say that she was encouraged to stand simply to forestall the complaints that would have come from outside Afghanistan if no woman had entered the presidential race.

It’s estimated that two-thirds of Afghans are women, over 20 years of war having culled the male population. But the weight of tradition is likely to prevent women making use of this numerical advantage.

This is a society so conservative that girls who’ve returned from Iran pine for their lost freedoms. NGOs report that women have been imprisoned for leaving abusive husbands, refusing to marry their parents’ choice of husband and trying to remarry after becoming widows.

Anyone who questions these practices can expect virulent opposition in high places, as Latif Pedram found out.

A television appearance in which he questioned the justice of polygamy and the ban on women divorcing without their husbands’ permission apparently caused a storm of protest. That’s according to the Supreme Court, at least, which went on to accuse him of blasphemy and try to get him struck off the ballot-paper for challenging the Islamic republic’s sharia law.

The bid was unsuccessful. Pedram is still standing. But he accuses his rivals, and notably the Karzai camp, of sabotaging his campaign, attacking him and his co-workers while he travelled the country in search of votes and even of tying to kidnap him.

Pedram is a tall, courteous man, whose campaign posters break with current international practice in making him look considerably less handsome than he is in real life. He has had a chequered career, ranging from poetry to politics, from Maoism to working with Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masood.

He lived in France for some time and picked up faltering French to go with his faltering English.

His programme opposes “needless and unbridled privatisation” of assets such as banks, roads and railways, calls for free education for all, a campaign against narcotics and laws to stop violence against women and children. He has attracted some support among young voters with a proposal for a ministry for youth. He also advocates non-alignment. Even though the manifesto makes the mandatory promise to work with the “the world community … against all forms of terrorism and extremism” and accepts that capital and free markets are “an undeniable reality”, one guesses that Pedram is not Washington’s favourite candidate.

He shrugs off the pressures that he’s come under.

“A woman is working, when she comes home, she is under the orders of her husband, her husband can hit her because she doesn’t have full rights. That’s why I accept this risk.”

But the profound conservatism of Afghan society, especially on the status of women, brought down one reforming king and played a major role in bringing down the pro-Soviet régimes.

Pedram accepts this and that his support-base, mainly urban middle-class youth, is narrow but insists that he’s not running to win but to help create a movement that can work for change.

As we leave, I ask him who sent the bouquets of flowers that lie on shelves behind him. He looks slightly embarrassed and replies: “Supporters, maybe ladies.”

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A training session for Fefa election observers Photo: Tony Cross

 

Akbar Khan, who’s fixer/translator for my French colleague Valérie Rohart, hasn’t registered to vote. “Not while my country’s under occupation,” he says. I’d expected this reaction to be widespread but most Afghans seem keen to take part in their first-ever election by universal suffrage.

That’s certainly true of most of the educated middle class.

Mohamed Nyazi, who has set up a monitoring group called Free and Fair Elections in Afghanistan and pronounces its acronym, Fefa, apparently without even thinking of football, almost blushes as he explains how much he hopes that everything will pass off well.

“We have some difficulties, some problems, because in Afghan society the situation is not good,” he says. “We have economic problems, also. But we’re happy for this election because this is the first election and this is an experience for going to democracy. We will see these problems but we will pass these problems and we hope in Afghanistan there will be free and fair elections in the future.”

Professor Kazeem Ahang, at the journalism faculty of Kabul University, is also enthusiastic, even though he believes that Afghanistan is still largely feudal and that there will be tribal and ethnic pressures on the poll.

He proudly declares that he has registered and seems puzzled that most of his family didn’t bother, on the grounds that the result is a foregone conclusion.

And the professor will probably not exercise his newly acquired right. He’s been invited to visit the US and is desperately trying to find a flight out. If his efforts prove successful, he won’t be here on polling day.

Election workers in the country say that they have some work to do to convince peasants that the whole thing isn’t fixed in advance and that its outcome could affect their lives, but on the streets of Kabul only a minority of people say that they’ve refused to register. Most are proud to have done so and ready to declare their voting preference.

Indeed, as incumbent Hamid Karzai apparently boasted when challenged on the suspiciously high registration figures, many Afghans are so keen to vote that they have registered several times.

No-one knows Afghanistan’s population, war having pushed census-taking off the agenda for many years, but it’s believed to be about 27 million. The UN initially estimated the number of eligible voters at 9.8 million. When registration figures reached 9.9 million they revised that figure to 10.5 million. By the end of the registration process the figures apparently showed pretty much every potential voter had registered.

Only 41.3% of those registered are women, although they form the majority of the population, and diplomats claim that the figure is as low as 5% in some parts of the south, where prejudice and insecurity have militated against female participation. The same diplomats say that Hazara women in the north were at first forbidden by local leaders to register but then changed the men’s minds on the grounds that the Hazaras would be outvoted by other ethnic groups if they didn’t.

So the figures look dicey, an impression confirmed by American journalist Christian Parenti, who has managed to buy two polling cards, although how he would convince a polling official that he’s Afghan is unclear.

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A traditonal Afghan compound on the road between Kabul and Loghar Photo: Tony Cross

There are signs of reconstruction as you leave Kabul going south. Long stretches of timber-yards seem to be doing business supplying, among other things, scaffolding. There are some large and vulgarly decorated houses just built or under construction. But vast areas of the city, perhaps most of it, have yet to be rebuilt; whole stretches lie in bombed-out ruins and others seem to have always been shabby and down-at-heel.

On the road to Loghar province, you soon pass into semi-desert, with occasional bursts of cultivated land. Stretches of land are pitted with little flags, which signify the presence of landmines. A mine-clearing team is working in one large field.

And there are miles of dust; wasteland dotted with traditional Afghan buildings. Viewed from outside, the architecture is one of the least attractive in the world – a long wall made from mud-bricks faced in brown-grey mud, often with a small tower in one corner and buildings in another. The building material is fragile, which is unfortunate given the country’s history.

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A guard at Mohamed Aslam Masood’s campaign headquarters Photo: Tony Cross

Behind the walls, these houses are more pleasant. There’s usually a garden, although its plants are all tinted grey by the ubiquitous dust, and the one-storey homes have windows which let in plenty of light and sprawl to accommodate an extended family.

In such a building, protected by armed guards, we find Mohamed Aslam Masood, lounging in a corner of a bright living room, receiving the heads of villages stuck out in the wilds of Loghar.

He’s been sent here to represent the Karzai campaign and seems confident that he has the province sewn up.

“Here we have people from all over our province, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek. We are all like brothers,” he declares, as mobiles trill, their rings ranging from music to birdsong. I cannot see the distinctive features of an Uzbek among the dozens of people in the building.

Six election workers have been killed in the province during the campaign, some UN vehicles have been blown up by landmines and gunmen have shot at registration centres, but Masood assures us that everything is running smoothly here.

The villagers ask if the campaign will provide transport to ferry voters to the election centres. There are only 25,000 centres spread out across this sprawling, mountainous country, necessitating a long and difficult journey for many voters.

The answer is no, the president’s campaign doesn’t have enough money for that and they must find their own transport. The villagers receive this information with remarkably good cheer.

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Faisal Olek Mujadad makes his entrance Photo: Tony Cross

There’s a respectful buzz and everybody gets to their feet, as a huge man, dressed in grey from his turban to his well-used shoes, enters the room. His authority over everyone here is almost tangible but he wears it casually, smiling and shaking hands with joviality. He’s introduced – Faisal Olek Mujadady, the former governor and former mojahedin commandant of the region.

He says that he has given up the gun, having resigned from the army three days ago, and clearly has a career in some other branch of public service lined up.

As the commandant merrily assures us that the province will vote Karzai – “after 25 years of problems, we’ve had two years of peace and brotherhood” – a younger man, bearded and fresh-faced and dressed in white, enters and takes a seat.

This is mullah Ghulam Rassool.

“Mullah dangerous, mullah Taleb,” the commandant says in English and grins. The cleric giggles.

His links with the former Taliban régime haven’t prevented the mullah being given responsibility for the Karzai campaign’s publicity in Loghar.

Indeed they might have helped. He says that the province’s religious leaders sent him to see the president to negotiate the price of their support. It included a commitment to build several madrassas here, to stamp out “prostitution”, which they claim is rife, and to gain the release of Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

The mullah is pleased because two prisoners have already been freed, one of them being the former Taliban minister of frontiers, Naim Kuchi.

Mullah Rassool seems to be one of the “moderate Taliban” with whom Karzai has been discussing. One suspects that the definition of the much-abused adjective in this case is “ready to deal with the president”.

The mullah’s puritanical politics don’t prevent him talking to Valérie or being a rather jolly fellow. He giggles when pressed to give a straight answer to a question and when interrupted by the commandant for perhaps being a little too nostalgic when asked how the current state of affairs compares to the previous régime.

“To start with the Taliban government was not bad,” runs the acceptable version. “But afterwards foreign governments came and interfered in our country and terrorism took place.”

The reference to foreign countries presumably indicates Pakistan but, considering that its security services, the ISI, virtually created the Taliban, it’s not clear when “afterwards” began.

When Valérie asks the mullah if he received money from the Karzai camp, the commandant interrupts: “You see, she understands that for the mullahs everything’s a matter of money!”

The mullah giggles again and everyone present feels free to laugh – once the commandant has cast the first disrespectful aspersion.

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Drivers of the highly decorated lorries that travel between Pakistan and Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

At a crossroads down the road, villagers seem to confirm Masood’s confident assessment. The occupant of a van sent from Kabul to hand out Masooda Jalal posters claims to be doing well but everybody who’s ready to reveal their voting intention says that they will vote for Karzai.

Isah Gul is typical.

“I will vote for Karzai because he is a Pashtun and a good person,” he says.

Why are Karzai’s ethnic origins important?

“Because I’m a Pashtun, I will vote for a Pashtun.”

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The road to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

The Panjshir Valley is different.

The drive from Kabul takes several hours, along a good road through the Shomali plains, once the garden of Afghanistan, now largely reduced to a dustbowl, and up into the mountains where the road deteriorates.

As you approach the valley the road improves again and the landscape changes. Jagged rocks from steel-grey mountains tumble into a shallow, green river which races along beside the road. You pass by orchards, climb up a mountain to look past twisted war-wreckage down onto cultivated fields; in one two cows lock horns as a herdsman looks on.

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Welcome to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

The entrance to Panjshir, which was recently declared a province, is effectively a frontier-post. Visitors must stop at a gate made from scaffolding sanctified by a massive billboard of the region’s most famous son, Ahmed Shah Masood, to be checked by armed guards. A decorative tank-shell greets you once you have passed through the checkpoint.

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Abandoned ordnance on the road to the Panjshir Valley Photo: Tony Cross

On the way we passed a collection of dilapidated tanks and other heavy weapons lying about on a dusty plateau, the fruit of the disarmament programme which involved buying the various factions’ arms off them.

Just down the road from the frontier, we pass another collection of heavy weaponry, ageing but in better condition and lined up neatly between some buildings under construction and a board explaining that these structures are a gift from the people of Japan.

As I reach for my camera, Akbar says: “Don’t take photos!”.

It could land us in trouble. These weapons are supposed to have been handed back, too, he says.

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Panjshir Valley villagers Photo: Tony Cross

The small town of Roha is the home-town of Hamid Karzai’s chief rival, Yunus Qanooni, we’re told. He’s a Tajik and one of the leaders of the Panjshir-based faction of the Northern Alliance, who accumulated enormous power after 2001, exploiting the reputation of Ahmed Shah Masood, their record of resistance to the Russians and Taliban and, above all, the weapons and fighting-men which they brought with them to Kabul to take control of the new government’s key ministries.

Qanooni himself became minister of education, not as crucial  a post as that taken by fellow Northern Alliance chief, Mohamed Fahim, who grabbed defence, while keeping his own militias in reserve. But Karzai seems to have manoeuvred Fahim out of the election calculations, while Qanooni is relying on the Tajik vote to provide a power-base during and after the vote.

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A Panjshir Valley shopkeeper and hiss friend show their loyalty to Ahmed Shah Masood Photo: Tony Cross

Small shops made of wood or converted goods containers line the road, a partridge in a cage often standing in front of displays of cheap goods. Qanooni’s poster is on display in many of them – but so is that of another Tajik candidate, Abdul Hafeez Mansoor, who is playing the ethnic card more blatantly.

As in other rural areas, many inhabitants are strangely reticent about their voting intentions.

“I will vote for the person who fulfils my conditions. He must be a Muslim and an Afghan and must defend our country,” says one man who is pushed to the front of the crowd. These supposedly personal demands are voiced with surprising regularity, leading one to suspect that the speaker has heard them at the local mosque, rather than from listening to the voice of his own reason.

Some of the younger men say that they will vote for Qanooni, “… he’s a Muslim, he was a mojahed, he’s a good person”. Older men explain that they will wait for the shura, the exclusively male meeting of village leaders, to declare its voting preference.

A young man is introduced as Barayolai, a mojahed.

What are you doing now? I ask.

“Now I’m still a mojahed,” he says and lets out a wheezing laugh.

Taken aback, I ask whom he’s fighting now.

“If anyone comes, like al Qaeda, like foreigners, we’ll gladly fight them.”

Is there a risk of that?

“Yes, for sure. Why not?”

But when asked if he has fought any al Qaeda, Baroyalai says that they daren’t come into the area.

His candidate of choice is Qanooni.

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A tank serves a peaceful purpose by Ahmed Shah Masood’s mausoleum Photo: Tony Cross

On a ridge sticking out into the valley, surrounded by bare mountains with a view into the fertile area below is a disused tank, stripped of its paint, its barrel pointing into the air, shirts drying on its body.

They belong to a small group – a gardener, a stallkeeper, guards – who make their living at the tomb of Ahmed Shah Masood, whose dark green, plastic-looking roof shines in the sun against the bare, hard creases of the mountains.

Inside, his grave is decorated with dark cloth, gold and silver coloured streamers and Arabic inscriptions. Two men come in and kneel to pay their respects.

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Ahmed Shah Masood’s tomb Photo: Tony Cross

The chief guard on duty, Mekhuer Ahmad, is a man in his 30s, fair for an Afghan and blue-eyed, dressed in battle fatigues but quietly spoken. He was a guard for the guerrilla leader and believes that everything would be better if he was still alive.

“He was completely opposed to the Americans, so if Ahmed Shah Masood was alive there would not be American soldiers in Afghanistan.”

He says that he has nothing against the international force, Isaf, but has nothing but contempt for the Americans.

“The Afghanistan people hate them,” he says and goes on to blame the US for conflicts all over the world, although the only example he actually names is Palestine.

 

Mekhuer Ahmad has a low opinion of President Karzai, too.

“In the beginning we offered to be his bodyguard. But now he has taken on foreigners,” he says, and indeed at yesterday’s Karzai rally in Kabul, security during the three and a half hour wait for the president was assured by a group with pistols on their hips and machine-guns in their hands, whose spokesperson was an elegantly-coiffed American blonde and whose personnel was largely made up of pink-skinned men with shades and goatee beards.

Ahmad accuses Karzai of being pro-Pashtun rather than pro-Afghan and says that he wants a president with the interests of the whole country at heart. He, too, seems to favour Yunus Qanooni.

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Traditional dance at Hamid Karzai’s election rally in Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

Pulling into Kabul after dark, we have to stop alongside the lines of lorries that have been banned from entering the city for the week before polling, for fear of a repetition of last week’s lorry bomb.

The vote takes place in less than 36 hours and many people registered in Kabul are coming into the city, while others, registered elsewhere, are leaving. Another sign of concern over security – armed police check each car, opening all the doors, checking out the passengers and looking under their legs and behind them for weapons and explosives. It’s not ultra-thorough but it’s methodical enough to cause a traffic-jam which seems to be accepted with reasonably good humour by drivers and passengers.

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A bridge over the Kabul river Photo: Tony Cross

The solidity of Stalinist architecture didn’t prevent the former Soviet Cultural Mission, which is behind the former Soviet embassy, from being shelled into a wreck of concrete, metal and dark holes where rooms used to be.

It wasn’t reduced to this condition during the war to drive out the Russians but after it, when the liberators fought it out among themselves. The artillery of Abdel Rashid Dostum fired from mountains on one side of Kabul and the artillery of Ahmed Shah Masood fired from mountains on the other side, many shells falling short and destroying liberated buildings or killing liberated Kabulis.

A few kids hang around outside the destroyed building, along with a grey-bearded man, who says that his name is Abdul Hafar and that he is a refugee returned from Pakistan. He takes us through a hole in the wall into what must once have been the cultural centre’s garden.

On the left of the gap through which we climbed are toilets hammered together out of wood and UN High Commission for Refugees plastic covering. On the right is a tent, the ground covered in cheap carpets, clothes and cushions neatly piled to one side, which has served as home to Abdel Hafar and six relatives for the last two and a half years.

Children with scars from infections on their faces stare at us, other men gather round and women come out of homes set up inside the dilapidated building to hang their washing in the polluted air.

Abdul Hafar says that he fled to Pakistan during the war, after helicopters of “the enemies of Afghanistan” shot up his home.

Was it worth fighting that war? I ask.

His answer is equivocal.

“The situation is better than in Taliban times. For a year we’ve had peace in Afghanistan. But I’m not sure that it will last because we had war for 25 years. The new generation has grown up in a country at war so everyone has mental problems, no-one is used to peace.”

As he speaks, the throbbing of military helicopters passes overhead.

One wouldn’t have thought it possible to live in the flattened streets around the ex-embassy. But, in a site where just a few shards of building are left standing, some families have rigged up tarpaulins and plastic sheets to make their homes.

Gul Haidar has lived here for seven months. Under the Taliban his father was arrested after neighbours claimed that he had a weapon in his home. He was released but, following a tip-off that they were coming for him a second time, the family fled to Pakistan. His father lives in this ruin with the rest of the family now and Gul Haidar tries to scrape a living as a street-hawker.

Is life easier here or in Pakistan?

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Buildings creep up the side of the mountains around Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

“It is the same for us. It is hard here and it was hard in Pakistan.”

Gul Haidar, who originally came from the Panjshir Valley, says that he will vote for Yunus Qanooni.

There’s another refugee camp right by the vast football field which stretches out in front of Kabul stadium, where Karzai held his election rally and where, a few years ago, the Taliban carried out public executions. Some government buildings are nearby.

Here tents have been pitched in neat lines or stretched over half-destroyed buildings. Detached lorry cabs and other twisted war-wreckage stand in the midst of the dwellings. A cobbler sits at the side of the road with a group of men around him.

We’re not the first visitors, it seems.

“For the last three years, lots of journalists and people from the UN or the Afghan government have come here,” says Ismail Khan, who introduces himself as the camp’s agent. “They interview us but they don’t help us.”

He supports Karzai, whom he credits with bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan but he believes that the refugees have been neglected by the government.

“I think he wants to bring unity to Afghanistan, too. But ministers drive by every day. They see us but they do nothing for us.  What have we done wrong? Our children get no education. When they’re older, they’ll disturb the country. We don’t want this kind of life.”

Another man, Mir Ahmed, has been here two years, since returning from Afghanistan.

“We came back because we saw that there was peace.” Then, like most of the refugees we talk to, he adds: “We were refugees in Pakistan; now we are refugees in Afghanistan.”

Most of the men here say they will vote for Karzai. But, when a van from the Qanooni campaign pulls up and starts distributing posters, the political debate steps up a notch. People start grumbling about ministers who have “built themselves six houses and done nothing for us”.

A man with one leg, one of the tens of thousands of Afghans handicapped in the decades of war, limps up to our taxi as we leave. Earlier he wouldn’t say anything but now there’s no stopping him.

“At the beginning of the transitional government Karzai said he was going to pay 3,000 afghani per month to the handicapped,” he yells. “Now he’s going to pay 300 afghani. What can we do with that?

“These ministers coming back from abroad have salaries of 50,000 or 80,000 per month. If Karzai can give that to his ministers, why is there no money for the poor?”

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Men queue to vote on polling day in Kabul Photo: Tony Cross

The next day is polling day. It’s a freakishly grim day, unusually cold for the time of year, the sky a gloomy sort of yellow-grey. At 7.30am the streets are eerily quiet. A public holiday has been declared, so no-one’s rushing to work. Traffic has been banned, except for Kabul-registered taxis. As we climb into one, my interpreter, Jamshid, who has already taken a taxi to meet me, says that the driver asked him:

“You know why it’s like this today?”

“No.”

“Last night one of the candidates made a deal to sell Afghanistan to foreigners. Allah is angry.”

There’s already a long queue at the mosque in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, which today serves as a polling centre. Men tell us that they’re delighted to vote. A smaller queue of women forms at a side-building where they can lift their chadris in private and be checked against their polling cards.

But, as we leave, we’re stopped by an excited group of off-duty soldiers. They thrust their thumbs towards us and shout something.

“Look, we voted half an hour ago and already the ink has washed off.”

It’s true that their hands show no sign of the ink-mark that is supposed to stop multiple-voting.

They proffer their voting-cards which have been stamped.

We stop an Uzbek man coming out of the mosque and get him to rub his thumb with spit. The mark starts to go, although it doesn’t vanish altogether.

At other polling stations the queues are equally long and the enthusiasm as great – one man is carried out of the centre by two friends; despite their help, he’s short of breath, but he pants out an explanation, that he and his wife have flown in from the USA just to vote, he fell ill on the plane and wouldn’t allow that to stop him taking part. But the report of the fading ink has begun to spread. It’s happened at many centres in Kabul and, it seems, throughout the country. Angry men claim that this is a plot to allow people with several voting cards to use them all.

All the candidates, apart from Karzai, leap on this opportunity to demand that the poll be called off. They or their representatives gather at the house of Satar Sheerat, an intellectual who is standing although without much hope of massive support. Apart from Karzai only Masooda Jalal is unrepresented. From her headquarters, she declares that she’s boycotting the poll but won’t have anything to do with her competitors for second, third or whatever position.

A mob of journalists gathers in the garden, as UN representative Manuel da Silva and EU envoy Francesc Vendrell come and go. Da Silva declares that the Joint Electoral Monitoring Board won’t call off the vote and the candidates continue their meeting. The press’s impatience grows and for a moment it looks as if the first casualties of the day will be from our ranks or those of the security guards who are obliged to use physical force, but happily not their weapons, to prevent us storming into the meeting room.

Finally, Sheerat and some of his temporary allies appear on the patio to read a declaration. They detail a number of minor complaints, such as Pakistanis allegedly posing as Afghans at one polling station, and claim that the ink crisis makes the poll untenable. They call for a boycott, although most of the morning is already over and it’s difficult to see how they can communicate the order to their supporters throughout the country.

In the middle of a little clump of reporters, one candidate, Amayan Shah Asufi, launches into a bitter attack on the probable winner.

“The drug-traffickers have an interest in the election of Karzai, because he’s a weak personality and his authority doesn’t go beyond Kabul city,” he says.

Asufi claims that some government ministers and some provincial governors are “directly involved in drug-smuggling” and that drug-money has been used to reelect Karzai.

While the candidates insinuate that this is all fraud by the Karzai camp, the fault seems to lie with UN trainers. Ill-prepared election officials have used ink that was supposed to stamp polling-cards to stamp hands, others have failed to shake before use, others just haven’t made sure that the ink is properly applied.

Pakistani author and journalist Ahmed Rashid, perhaps the best-known authority on the region, strikes an I-told-you-so note – he blames the cock-up on the unholy rush to hold this election before the country was ready for it.

“It should have been postponed one or two years,” he says.

The excitement caused by this bungling obscures the fact that the day goes off with no apparent violence in Kabul.

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Véronique Rebeyrotte of France Culture and Valérie Rohart of RFI on the way to the vote count with the ruins of the former royal palace in the background Photo: Tony Cross

 

The day before polling day rockets were fired on the city from the mountains overlooking it but no-one was injured. Harassment of election-workers during the campaign was more serious, with about 30 of them being murdered.

But the Taliban have failed to carry out their threats, posted in “night letters” on mosque walls, to attack every one of the candidates, to punish villagers taking part in the vote and to disrupt the poll itself.

There are relatively few reports of violence on polling day: we hear of rockets killing three children in Helmand province and hitting two polling stations before voting began, of about 32 people, government forces and guerrillas, being killed in fighting in the south and of two attempts at suicide-bombings being foiled in Kandahar province.

Vickram Parekh, an analyst at the International Crisis Group’s modest office in Kabul, believes that the Karzai government has isolated the die-hards by negotiating with so-called “moderates”, while convincing the Pakistani army to finally put aside any sentimental or tactical attachment to their former proxies and hit them hard in the tribal areas along the frontier. The Pakistanis perhaps also had their own reasons for ending the no-go zone in these provinces, which has lasted since the British Raj, in the context of sectarian and religious violence in cities like Karachi and has even threatened the life of President Pervez Musharraf.

The Taliban also seem to have lost a lot of sympathy among the population, even in the Pashtun areas which were their power-base when the movement began.

The politicians’ anger over yesterday’s malfunctions isn’t shared by most people on Kabul’s central market. Hardly any of them want a rerun and most believe Karzai will be reelected.

Relief at the lack of disruption predominates at the press conferences called by election observers.

Fefa outlines a number of abuses and calls for a mechanism to be set up to look into the candidates’ complaints but  says that the “ink problem” was solved in most places by 9.00am, thanks to the work of UN officials.

Fefa also notes a violation of a ban on campaigning on the day by supporters of Hamid Karzai in Gardez, Yunus Qanooni in Jalalabad and Masooda Jalal in Herat.

The organisation’s observers seem to have been made unwelcome at polling stations in refugee camps in Pakistan, where there were 1.5 million potential voters. They were prevented from entering some voting centres. In others their IDs were taken, or documents to help their work were torn up or they were taken out of the centres as the ballot boxes were sealed, which might give rise to some suspicion.

But, Fefa president Mohamed Nyazi regards these problems as minor ones and declares the election “fairly democratic”.

International observers seem to be even more ready to judge the abuses of secondary importance.

The Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe’s representative Robert Barry says that in some areas observers and agents were not allowed to enter polling stations; responding to claims that election officials sometimes went into the booths with voters to tell them how to vote, he says that they were urging but not forcing the electors to vote a certain way.

But the OSCE still declares that nullifying the election would “put into question the expressed will of millions of Afghan citizens who came out to vote, carried out voter registration and manned polling stations despite great personal risk”.

Barry does admit that there could still be problems.

“There’s a famous quote by Joseph Stalin that says: ‘It’s not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes.’ So we have to wait for the count to be complete before we make an overall assessment.”

The judgement seems to have been made, however.

Organisers know that a rerun would be practically impossible because of the oncoming winter, which will render much of the country inaccessible, never mind tricky questions like how it would be paid for, whether election workers would have the stamina to go through it all again or whether the population would be ready to turn out to vote again.

Nobody’s even mentioning the possibility of a second round which, according to the rules, has to take place if the leading candidate gets less than 50%. One gets the impression that this didn’t enter into the pre-poll calculations, it being assumed from the start that Karzai would clear that barrier in the first round.

And, of course, there are international considerations. Karzai is Washington’s man. The Bush administration doesn’t want a failure before the US presidentials, nor does it want to further discredit its plans for an election in Iraq in January.  The other power-brokers seem ready to tolerate a certain amount of bungling and jiggery-pokery in the hope that some semblance of stability will follow.

Many election observers seem genuinely concerned not to pour cold water on the enthusiasm of voters who did turn out, even if some of them turned out more times than they were entitled to.

But what about those votes which were cancelled out by the double or treble votes of the multiply registered, or the stuffed ballot boxes, or the intimidation by local armed leaders?

In many other countries these practices would have been declared impermissible. What is the acceptable level of malfunction or fraud and how does it vary between countries?

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Outside Kabul stadium before Hamid Karzai’s election rally Photo: Tony Cross

At first glance, the Afghans have had an American-style presidential election, minus the electoral college, fortunately, and the international consensus now seems to be that this is real democracy. Thus Jack Straw, the foreign minister of a country which doesn’t elect its head of state, was second only to George Bush in congratulating Afghans on electing theirs.

But is the Western way the only way? If Afghanistan developed its own form of democracy without outside instructions, would it be in the way agreed in the post-invasion conference at Bonn?

Isn’t it possible to adapt the shura and the jirga, most obviously by the participation of women, to provide an expression of the interests and will of the majority of the population?

In any case, the real campaigning  wasn’t public debates and election rallies, which the candidates reluctantly got round to holding in the last couple of days, it was deals with warlords, provincial bosses, former Taliban and religious leaders, whose decisions on whom to support filtered down to tribal elders and village shuras.

Probably only one candidate stood with the expectation of winning. The other big players hoped to gain enough support to be strongly placed for the after-poll carve-up, usually by becoming the de-facto representative of an ethnic group and/or a region.

So traditional habits live on and will continue to do so. Afghans have chosen their president by universal suffrage but armed militias, corruption, ethnic and regional factionalism and deal-fixing behind the backs of the people continue to flourish, like the opium poppies that Karzai has promised the West to uproot.

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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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Looting, firefights, occupation … Eyewitness in Baghdad 2003 after Saddam

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Saddam  loyalists fought US troops at the foot of our hotel one night, local people pleaded for food, water and medicines Shia pilgrims turned out in their thousands in the holy city of Kerbala, this was the Iraq I saw in 2003. I wrote this account on my return to Europe, in Venice, where many residents had hung flags calling for “Pace” from their windows. 

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US soldiers on the road between Baghdad and Basra; Photo: Tony Cross

Baghdad, 11 April 2003

The motorway into Baghdad is littered with the of tanks, trucks, buses and artillery, some still in flames. Piles of spent cartridges lie on the tarmac, glistening in the sun like puddles.

Thirty kilometres outside the city, American soldiers told us that they had just arrived to set up a checkpoint and that there was fighting here during the night. A GI with a down homey accent told our convoy of several hundred journalists from around the world not to « haul ass » down this bit of road in case we were taken for the enemy or we ran over some of their men lying on the ground.

Indeed, the fighting seems to be continuing, even though Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party leadership have gone missing. We pull into the city to the sound of shots being fired almost continuously and our way to the city centre is blocked by American tanks.

Some of the shooting is said to be shopkeepers protecting their businesses from looters. Outside a smoking shopping-mall people make off with poor-quality consumer-goods. Ministries and other buildings associated with the state have already been hit. That includes hospitals, universities and schools.

But there is also military resistance to the US’s capture of Baghdad and it continues sporadically for some time, especially at night. Usually, it’s just the exchange of machine-gun fire. These clashes are often between the remnants of the Fedayeen of Saddam and other Iraqis. But sometimes someone attacks the Americans with rockets or mortars and they respond with artillery or send helicopters to bomb buildings which are left to smoke for several days, the fire brigade being one of the public services which is currently not operational.

I arrived in Kabul in similar circumstances in 2001. There was less fighting, less destruction and less chaos. The American military presence was much more discreet, with commanders from the Northern Alliance taking over the minstries within a couple of days.

Baghdad’s Palestine and Sheraton hotels are completely surrounded by US marines, who control the city to the east of the Tigris. The army controls the west side. Barbed wire closes off the hotels from the square where Saddam’s legs remain attached to a plinth, but at a right angle, like gun-barrels aiming at nothing, after being separated from the rest of his statue in front of the world’s TV cameras. On the riverside the marines have parked about a dozen tanks and other armoured vehicles.

The Sheraton is a den of thieves. You must wait all day to see if you can get a room and then pay a $100 bribe to move in. Electricity costs another $50, cleaning a few dollars more. The lifts hardly ever work. For a few days one of the women workers brings in rice and beans and makes evening meals. But she stops after a furious row with the manager in the lobby. It appears that the boss demanded a cut.

In the lobby human-shields mix with soldiers and journalists, sometimes stopping for an argument with representatives of either group. Mysterious Iraqis occupy some of the rooms and never come out. They’re widely believed to be former officials of the old régime.

Many journalists enter into the spirit of the occasion and check out without paying, passing the room-key on to friends or selling it to more casual acquaintances.

After a couple of nights on the sixteenth floor without electricity, I purchase the key to a room in the Palestine, where the lifts work and moral standards are higher.

A couple of days after that, armed Iraqis march into the room of our technician, Manu Pochez, while he’s working. He gives them money and they go away but we decide to evacuate the encampment and find a small hotel in a calm side-street, guarded by two youths with Kalashnikovs, of course.

There are demonstrations every day in the square in front of the hotel. People paste up figures of religious and political leaders or raise banners demanding help finding political prisoners or asking for information about Kuwaiti PoWs.

And there are daily protests against the Americans. They are never more than a few hundred-strong but they get angrier as time goes by and the population remains without many basic needs. The demonstrators’ principal demand is a government made up of Iraqis and chosen by Iraqis.

“In the government I want Iraqi, not American, not British,” one of them yells over the sound of his comrades’ chanting.

Does he think it’s good that Saddam has gone ?

“No. I need Saddam because I want to kill Saddam!”

Although anti-American sentiment here is far more vocal than in Kabul, it doesn’t seem to shake the faith of most of the marines.

Twenty-three-year-old Marine lance-corporal Fernando Ortiz, from Sacramento, California, says that he “strongly agrees” with George Bush.

“I think it’s a good thing that we came in here to liberate Iraq, » he adds. « I talked to a few Iraqis yesterday and some of them said that they didn’t really like us being here. But we liberated them, so I hope they appreciate it.”

palais de sadam saladin...
One of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, featuring a bust of the leader as Saladdin

Some do. Many, although not all, of the poorest Iraqis praise Bush for toppling Saddam. But those with a little bit of something, manual workers and professionals who can no longer do their jobs in the present anarchy, usually say that the Americans should go as soon as possible.

The chaos, the looting, the lack of water and electricity in most of the city mean that tempers get short. When a lorry-load of mineral water arrives for the Palestine and the Sheraton, there’s nearly a riot. The anti-American demonstrators almost pull the Iraqis on the back of the lorry onto the street. They throw sticks at them and call them traitors for giving the water to foreigners while their compatriots go thirsty.

There’s a widespread belief that the Americans encouraged the looting so as to justify a prolonged presence here. When the museum and library are sacked some claim that this is a Zionist-American plot to wipe out their history.

Iraqis seem more politically sophisticated than Afghans, whose politics tends to follow ethnic or tribal patterns, and who have never experienced a stable, centralised state.

Long experience has taught Iraqis never to believe anyone. They are enthusiastic proponents of the conspiracy theories that are so popular throughout the Middle East. It would be unfair to call this paranoia, given how much persecution they’ve suffered.

No-one believes that the US is here for liberty or any of the other fine sentiments that find their way into George Bush’s scripts. At an oil ministry maintenance depot, where about 200 technicians are milling around bemoaning the fact that their tools and other equipment have been stolen, both managers and workers assure us that Washington is here toget its hand on Iraq’s main natural resource. No-one has failed to notice that the Americans managed to protect the Oil Ministry from looting while letting everything else be ransacked.

The ministry was also spared the bombing. Its Saddamo-Stalinist-style building stands intact in a field of rubble, US tanks at its gates.

The American presence is much more visible than in Kabul. Here there was no Northern Alliance to front the seizure of the capital. The Alliance inspired distrust and even fear among many Afghans, but at least most of its leaders had been present in the country and fighting the Taliban.

A Kurdish-dominated offensive from northern Iraq seems to have been judged inadvisable or impractical, so the invasion came through the south from Kuwait and was entirely foreign.

Boys of 18-25-years-old, carrying their own weight in advanced military equipment stand in the shadows of tanks bristling with barrels and ammunition on every major street corner. Their attitudes to the local population vary from helpful to fearful. But none of them seem to speak Arabic and many make up for this disadvantage by raising their voices and getting annoyed. The liberators look very much like an army of occupation.

One Iraqi who is keen to praise president Bush is Ahmad Chalabi. He’s been away from the country since 1956, during which time his career has involved fleeing Jordan in the boot of a car in the wake of a banking scandal, being adopted by the American hard-right as the man most likely to overthrow Saddam and being the subject of disagreement between different agencies of the American state over his aptitude for the task.

His supporters have set up shop in the Iraqi Hunting Club, which was famously controlled by Saddam’s notorious son, Uday. It’s guarded by men in uniform who say that they belong to the “Free Iraqi Forces”.

Chalabi holds a press conference at the Hunting Club shortly after arriving in Baghdad. He avoids answering a question about who pays the FIF. But he is full of praise for the Americans – and for them alone.

“I do not think that the United Nations is either capable or has the credibility in Iraq to play a major role,” he says. “The moral imperative is on the side of the United States and the Iraqi people now will accept a leadership role for the United States in this process.”

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A telephone exchange destroyed by US bombs Photo: Tony Cross

Not all of them though. As Chalabi is speaking, a car displaying his picture is sprayed with bullets outside the club.

“Since you’ve occupied our country, why can’t you give us medicine and treat our injuries?”  an out-of-work civil servant wants to know. He’s among a crowd outside Baghdad  Town Hall, whose gates are locked and guarded by marines. He has a personal interest in his rhetorical question. His arm is paralysed. He claims that there are two American bullets in it and that he can’t find anyone to take them out. He swears that he was unarmed when the soldiers fired on him.

Small crowds form outside all public buildings in Baghdad. They’re reservoirs of extreme suffering in he generalised misery of the city. Outside the Town Hall, people demand water and electricity for their neighbourhoods, as they do on every street in the city. Others ask foreigners if they can use their satellite-phones so that they can tell relatives abroad that they’re still alive.

Outside the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, a father seeks help to send his son abroad for a heart operation, another man brandishes an X-ray of a broken hip and says he can’t afford to have the necessary operation, a veteran of the war with Iran says that he needs an operation on his leg and that he has no money for medicine he needs.

“If I can’t take this medicine I could die. What can I do?”

I suggest that he go to a nearby hospital.

“What you say is of no use,” he tells me.

Nidal is a middle-aged woman who’s proud of the fact that she’s studying for her PhD. Her house was robbed and then burnt to the ground by looters. Now she’s sleeping in the street.

“Only this!” she cries in English, indicating the only possessions she has left – the T-shirt and trousers that she’s wearing.

“Under Saddam Hussein there was injustice,” a man in the crowd says. “But at least there was work, there were salaries, we could go home at night and sleep safely with our families. Now from six o’clock in the evening till the morning, no-one can leave their houses.”

America hasn’t delivered its promises the crowd agrees. They want a government of Iraqis, they say, but, when asked who would lead it, they have no candidates.

The Americans have destroyed the old state but seem not to have considered in advance what to put in its place.

They launch an appeal to professionals to present themselves at the Palestine hotel and a crowd of teachers, engineers and doctors forms. But where will they work and with what equipment ?

One day the soldiers make a dawn raid on several floors of the Palestine, obliging half-awake journalists to splay themselves on the floor while the GIs search for arms caches and potential terrrorists.

Later, a crowd of men in olive uniforms pushes its way through the lobby. They’re senior police officers here to discuss reconstituting the force. They slip down a side-passage towards a hidden lift but there are too many of them to fit into it. After several minutes, I leave them still arguing about who will get out and take the second ride to the conference room. It’s difficult to imagine that senior police officers were unaware of the abuses of Saddam’s régime but the occupying force seems to be ready to work with them.

If the Americans really did hope that chaos would justify a prolonged presence, they may have seriously miscalculated. A combination of popular initiative and religious authority is filling the void left by the destruction of the state.

Local people have improvised roadblocks from the detritus of war to slow down potential attackers. Armed militias man scruffy checkpoints and protect buildings that are important to local people.

At the entrance of the poverty-stricken Saddam City a nervous youth thrusts his Kalashnikov at our taxi-driver. We’ve hired a guide who comes from the area and he gets us through.

There are more boys with guns outside Al Qardisiya hospital. We’re introduced to Saeed Jalil Al-Hasseini, a religious student who has returned to his old home from the Shia moslem holy city of Najaf after the religious council there declared a fatwa against looting and sanctioned the establishment of militias.

He and other religious notables have taken over the management of the hospital. Al-Hasseini explains that there has been a lot of fighting between the militia and the remnants of the Fedayeen of Saddam, some of it inside the hospital itself. He says that they have captured several fedayeen and that they are “of different nationalities, mostly from Arab nations”.

Everyone blames the nightly gunfights on “Arab volunteers”, who came to fight for the old régime and now can’t get out of the country, just as the Afghans blamed “Arabs” for the fighting that continued after the fall of the Taliban. Many Iraqis just talk about “the Syrians”, since most of the foreigners have apparently come through that country.

A group of Malaysian journalists try to enter Saddam City in a Syrian car, in convoy with some Malaysian doctors. Militiamen fire on the car, killing the Syrian driver and wounding a doctor, a journalist and a guide.

The attackers apologise and take them to see a prisoner whom they ask them to film. He reads a declaration saying that he was number 16 in the fedayeen hierarchy and that he was paid handsomely to kill Shia and Americans. Then the captors produce a knife. The two cameramen refuse to carry on, fearing that they were about to record a summary execution.

Along the road from the hospital is a mosque. It’s a Sunna mosque, even though most of the area’s people are Shia. Kassem al-Moussawi, an affable teacher, is standing beside a table strewn with papers. There’s a bizarre collection of objects in the mosque’s courtyard – office chairs, desks, an industrial weighing machine … The Najaf fatwa instructed Shia to bring looted goods to the mosques so that they can be restored to public institutions.

Moussawi is supervising this process, starting with the hospitals. Some of the doctors are amazed at the quality of the equipment that they receive. Looted from clinics reserved for the old régime’s élite, it’s “returned” to medical facilities whose patients are poor.

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Thousands of Shia turn out for Friday prayers in the renamed Al-Sadr city Photo: Tony Cross

By the second Friday after the fall of Baghdad, Saddam City has changed its name. It’s unofficial, but nothing’s official at the moment, so who’s to stop the Shia inhabitants renaming it Al-Sadr City after a cleric and political leader who was killed by the former ruler?

Young men brandish guns and pictures of Al Sadr as they make their way down the litter-strewn streets to Friday prayers. We’re stopped by militiamen, but they’re noticeably more relaxed than at the beginning of the week and make an effort to be polite to visiting journalists.

A vast crowd has filled the wide main street in front of the area’s main mosque. Tens of thousands of Shia have come from Saddam City and surrounding areas and are sitting on the dusty ground waiting for prayers to begin.

When they respond to the imam, a wave of sound rolls over the mosque and the surrounding slums.

This is partly a celebration of the fact that the Shia can publicly practise all aspects of their faith after the limits that Saddam placed on it. The Shia have been kept out of positions of power throughout most of Iraq’s history, even though they’re the majority of the country’s population. Most of the poor are Shia.

All of which might have inspired them to vengeance and religious sectarianism. But, in Baghdad at least, they seem to reject the idea of confessional revenge. Slogans on mosque walls and banners call for unity of Sunna and Shia, and sometimes Christians. Leading clerics say that they don’t want a Shia monopoly of power.

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Ashura pilgrims in a Kerbala mosque Photo: Tony Cross

No doubt the Shia political movements that operated from exile in Iran have a positive view of the 1970s Iranian revolution but most people I speak to look blank when I ask what they think of it. In politics, at least, they seem to think of themselves as Iraqis first and it is their country, after all, which is home to the most important Shia holy cities.

The annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Kerbala turns into another celebration of new freedoms and old resentments.

Millions of Shi-a, men and women, make their way to the city on foot, beating their chests in rhythm, a few hitting their heads until the blood runs, in penance for the failure to prevent the martyrdom of the prophet Mohamed’s grandson, Hussein, in a struggle for the leadership of Islam.

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Women pilgrims in Kerbala Photo: Tony Cross

As the faithful march towards Kerbala, a long American military convoy heads the other way. There are no soldiers in the city, no police and virtually no guns. It’s a shock after Baghdad. But there seems to be perfect peace. Most pilgrims sleep in the street. They’re fed in communal kitchens set up by Kerbala’s residents.

Islamic discipline is strictly observed, meaning little crime but also a drastic dress-code for women, all of whom are entirely covered in black apart from their faces. A stray lock of hair brings sharp reproof, even for foreign non-believers.

Inside the gold-decorated mosques which house the shrines to Hossein and his uncle Abbas, people mourn relatives lost to Saddam’s repression. Others denounce Washington’s reported plan to stay here for several years.

And they explain why there are no buildings in the space between the two shrines. The narrow streets that used to be here were flattened in 1991. That was George Bush senior called on Iraqis to revolt and left the Shia to be massacred when they followed his advice. The military reportedly used chemical weapons on parts of the city.

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Pilgrims arrive in Kerbala Photo: Tony Cross

Back in Al-Sadr/Saddam City about a week after our first visit, Al Qardisiya hospital seems relatively calm.

Relatively. Dr Ali Handhal Aboud says that he’s going to take a rest because he’s carried out 153 operations on gunshot wounds over the last three days.

Aboud is the only surgeon to have stayed at his post throughout the bombing and subsequent chaos. Staff attendance was down to about 5%, due to lack of transport and fear of violence. Today, he says, about 90% of the staff are back at their posts.

Health-workers, like other public employees, now wonder who will run the services they work for. Dr Salafa, the only woman to come to work for several days, expresses the fervent hope that the ex-head of Baghdad’s health services will remain missing. For the old Ba’ath Party management, she says, obstruction was routine, even going beyond motives of personal enrichment.

At the oil maintenance depot, too, workers ask who will run their working lives from now on. Will competent professionals who fell foul of the Ba’ath become the new management ? Will they be able to choose their bosses, as one manager suggests?

It’s an echo of the wider question on everybody’s mind: Will Iraqis be able to choose their government and, if so, when?

There are a lot of unanswered questions in Iraq today.


26 May 2003 Update

Depressingly little seems to have changed since I left Iraq.

Saddam Hussein has still not been found. Indeed, being on Washington’s most-wanted list seem to be a guarantee of longevity, since the US also seems unable to track down Mullah Omar and Ossama bin Laden.

Nor have we been presented with any of the alleged weapons of mass destruction which provided the pretext for the invasion. The Americans haven’t even had the decency to fulfil prophesies that they would plant evidence of the régime’s capacity to wipe out its neighbours or attack the United States, although I suppose there’s still time for that.

Much of the population is reported to be still without drinkable water and electricity, including many parts of Baghdad, and crime and violence is still apparently widespread.

It’s true that Iraqis are contradicting themselves when they demand that the American-British force guarantee them decent living conditions, while at the same time telling them to get out of the country as soon as possible.

But I wonder if that’s as profound a contradiction as the claim to have made a country safe for democracy and then tell its people that they can’t choose to have an Islamic state or any other form of government unacceptable to the liberators.

This principle has already been applied in Basra, where the British bragged to the world’s news-media that they had set up a city counci and then promptly abolished it. The provincial council in Kirkuk, in the north, has also run into trouble.

The sacking of Jay Garner and his replacement by Paul Bremer seems to confirm the suspicion that the Bush adminstration had prepared no strategy for post-Saddam Iraq.

This is a trifle embarassing for those of us who suspected a master-plan to impose certain pliant politicians, partition the country and isolate its oil resources and then, perhaps, move on to invade neighbouring countries.

Everything seems to be decided empirically, which at least has the merit of being consistent with the philosophical and political traditions of the English-speaking world. But it must worry the people of Iraq, whose fate is being decided by an unpredictable president and an unpredictable government in a far-off land where they have few friends.

The US has, however, made sure that it has control of the oil and that its hegemony is clearly established in the Middle East, so the main aims of liberation have been accomplished. For now, at least.

This article was first published in Global Research

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