Monthly Archives: September 2014

Good Reads

Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Photo by Andreas Metz, Creative Commons

Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Photo by Andreas Metz, Creative Commons

U.S. Financial Reform: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash. By Jake Bernstein

One day Carmen Segarra purchased a tiny recorder at the Spy Store and began capturing what took place at Goldman Sachs. In the tale of what happened next lie revelations about the challenges of reforming the American financial system, in the wake of  the 2008 crisis that crippled global finances and continues to reverberate through the world economy.

Kool-Aid Economics. By Chris Wood (paywall)

Canadians have been aware for some time that their Prime Minister subscribes to an arcane fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Being the polite and generally go-along types we are, we have quite properly left his faith between the man and his God. However, it is now evident that Canada’s P.M. is a credulous disciple of another not-so-fringe and much more dangerous faith, about which we have every right to be deeply concerned. That cultic faith is Old Testament economics.

Islamic State threat a media creation. By Jim McNiven (paywall)

The popular media, always looking for the next big thing, has fastened upon the swift victories and social media brutalities of the group calling itself Islamic State. The various media have portrayed the organization as a worldwide threat and a number of governments have organized themselves to deal with it, led by the United States. You have to read between the lines on this one. First, this terrible threatening force is actually weaker than the Taliban force that was over-running Afghanistan in 2002.

The Poison in Afghanistan’s Politics: Afghan unity deal ensures future conflict. By Jonathan Manthorpe (paywall)

As rival candidates for power in Afghanistan signed a power-sharing deal on Sunday, an understandable sigh of relief swept through the corridors of power in those countries that have expended troops and treasure in the last dozen years trying to get the central Asian nation on its feet. In the six months since the first round of the presidential elections it looked as though the whole Afghan project might collapse into new chaos as the two main candidates, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, exchanged increasingly bitter allegations of vote-rigging.

Twisting the Years Away: Chubby Checker. A Time Capsule By Brian Brennan (paywall)

At age 36, dressed in spangled white jumpsuit with neckline plunging to the waist, Chubby Checker looked vaguely silly, like Elvis in Vegas. A dance routine in which a man pretends to grind out cigarette butts with his feet might seem a shaky foundation on which to build an enduring musical career. But there he was, 17 years after hitting the big time with The Twist, still twisting away as if his life depended on it.

War photography shocked and sanitized, but changed little. By Jonathan Long

Taken immediately after the ceasefire that ended the first Gulf War in 1991, Kenneth Jarecke’s photograph of the charred corpse of an Iraqi soldier in his burned-out jeep is one of the few memorable images of that conflict. Yet as a recent article in The Atlantic explains, high-level editors of news periodicals in the US refused to publish the image at the time, despite being urged to do so by their photo directors. The problems and debates that surround such images of war, violence, and atrocity, never quieten. And it is striking how many of the problems they address emerged during and after World War I.

The haunted painting of Sir John Franklin’s ship. By Laura MacCulloch

At Royal Holloway College at the University of London, Edwin Landseer’s picture Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) is covered by a Union Flag every year during exams. Not because of any fears of cheating during history exams but because students believe they will fail their exams (or even go mad) if they look at it. This fear of the painting goes back a long way in the history of the college. The subject matter of the picture is highly grisly and macabre. 

Manproposesgoddisposes

“Man Proposes, God Disposes” by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1864

The Hitchbot’s Guide to a Continent. By  Frauke Zeller and David Harris Smith

How do you rate your chances of completing a transcontinental road trip? What if you can’t drive and don’t have car? What if you can’t even move unaided? In fact, what about if you’re not even human? Tweeting, GPS-equipped robot Hitchbot managed it, hitchhiking across Canada this summer from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Victoria, British Columbia. The cylindrical robot, sporting a digital LCD smile and a fetching line in matching yellow rubber gloves and boots, completed the 6,000km journey in around 20 days.

And in case you missed these from earlier this month:

 Britain’s New World. By Deborah Jones

Britain will never be the same. The day after Scots voted 55-45 to support the United Kingdom, on promises by unionists for a new range of Scottish powers, Prime Minister David Cameron set in motion a process to empower not just Scotland, but also Wales and Northern Island — and potentially to remake the British political system.

Scotland Decided: what the experts say

In its independence referendum, Scotland voted to remain in the United Kingdom by 55 versus 45 per cent. An expert panel looks at what happened, and where it leaves the UK and Scotland.

ALEX SALMOND: The Independent Scot. By Murray Leith

If there’s one figure that anyone anywhere would associate with the Scottish referendum campaign it’s Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the man who could be responsible for the break-up of the United Kingdom. But who is he, where did this political whirlwind begin and where will it take the man and his party?

Gerontocracies rule Africa. By Stephen Chan

There are many African presidents whose age far outstrips that of their peers on other continents. David Cameron (47), Barack Obama (53), François Hollande (60), Merkel (60), Vladimir Putin (61) – these are striplings compared with the gerontocrats of Africa. Even the Chinese, long committed to respect for the old and wise and venerable, now seemingly have a commitment to presidential and politiburo appointments under the age of 60.

 — Deborah Jones

You’ll find lots of great free stories inside our site, while much of our original work is behind a paywall — we do not sell advertising. Journalism has value; and we need and appreciate your support (a day pass is $1 and monthly subscription is less than a cup of coffee).  If you’d like to give us a try before throwing pennies our way, drop me a note at Editor@factsandopinions.com, and I will email you a complimentary day pass. 

Posted in Current Affairs, Gyroscope

War photography shocked and sanitized, but changed little

Nayarama Chuch, Rwanda. Photo by Greg Locke © 1995

Nayarama Chuch, Rwanda. Photo by Greg Locke © 1995

By Jonathan Long, Durham University, The Conversation
September, 2014

Taken immediately after the ceasefire that ended the first Gulf War in 1991, Kenneth Jarecke’s photograph of the charred corpse of an Iraqi soldier in his burned-out jeep is one of the few memorable images of that conflict. Yet as a recent article in The Atlantic explains, high-level editors of news periodicals in the US refused to publish the image at the time, despite being urged to do so by their photo directors.

The problems and debates that surround such images of war, violence, and atrocity, never quieten. And it is striking how many of the problems they address emerged during and after World War I.

The power of the Iraqi photograph is not the property of the image alone; it depends on its relationship with other media images of the first Gulf War. The Western press offered a sanitised view of the conflict. This was partly because of military control of journalists in the war zone and partly because of the prevalence of imagery from the military’s own optical technology.

This technology facilitated the precision aiming of weapons in so-called “surgical strikes” and was then disseminated through TV news broadcasts, leading to what John Taylor terms the disappearance of the body:

The objects of violence are unknown and distant, or they are lumped together in masses and lack individuality … Killing is done at a distance, and if the victims are optically separated from their killers the insulation of combatants and viewers from the action is likely to be enhanced.

‘Surgical strikes’ in Operation Desert Storm, 1991. Photo by U.S. Air Force

‘Surgical strikes’ in Operation Desert Storm, 1991. Photo by U.S. Air Force

So the public understanding of the first Gulf War was determined to a large degree by optical technologies that operated at a distance. When this distance is collapsed – as in Jarecke’s photograph – we are, it is argued, faced with the truth of war. This point was made forcibly by Jonathan Jones in response to controversy surrounding the publication of photographs and film footage of the last moments of Muammar Gaddafi. As Torie Rose DeGhet says in the Atlantic article: “Photos like Jarecke’s not only show that bombs drop on real people; they also make the public feel accountable.”

But history might cause us to question the value of photography as a truth-telling medium that has unique power to make people accountable, acknowledge the full horror of war and effect political change.

In World War I, both Germany and Britain operated a primitive form of embedded journalism – and the photographic reporting of the conflict in the news media was massively sanitised in ways that will be familiar to modern readers.

The majority of images showed the everyday life of well-fed, cheery troops behind the lines. Captured enemy soldiers and materiel confirmed military successes. Images of the wounded emphasised rehabilitation and professional care. In the German press, military hardware and its destructive power were frequently foregrounded, encouraging expectations of victory on the grounds of technological superiority.

Recovering in the sun, World War I.  Photo from National Library of Scotland

Recovering in the sun, World War I. Photo from National Library of Scotland

The similarity to more recent war reporting is striking, especially the emphasis on technological superiority, and on medical care for casualties, as in regular BBC news items looking at state-of-the-art prosthetic limbs for amputee veterans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan.

In Germany, the political turmoil that followed World War I led to a highly polarised struggle for the meaning and memory of the war. Photography was not immediately mobilised in this struggle; it was Ernst Friedrich’s 1924 publication War against War that finally depicted photographically the human consequences of total war in all their brutality.

War against War was a bestseller: ten editions had been published by 1930 and 400,000 copies had been sold worldwide by 2000. The book contains some 180 photographs. Most depict gruesome death, rotting corpses, hangings and executions, and veterans with horrific facial wounds.

Friedrich hoped his book would inspire opposition to war. But despite its commercial success, our knowledge of subsequent events suggests it had little lasting political effect at either an individual or a collective level. In so far as War against War led to opposition, it was opposition to Friedrich. He was hounded by the German authorities and only narrowly escaped certain murder at the hands of the Nazis by emigrating in 1933.

Friedrich’s case reveals a problem that continues to bedevil discussions of war and atrocity photographs. Susan Sontag wrote that “for a long time some people believed that if the horror could be made vivid enough, most people would finally take in the outrageousness, the insanity of war”.

But we have not shed this belief. We continue to invest much in photography as a truth-telling medium and a politically transformative instrument, which is why it continues to generate controversy and debate. But there is still all too little evidence of photography’s ultimate ability to bring about political change.

Creative CommonsThe Conversation

Jonathan Long, Professor of German and Visual Culture at Durham University, does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Chris Wood on Canada’s Old Testament Economics

An illustration from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster. Public domain.

Chris Wood writes that the religious faith of Canada’s prime minister is properly his business. His shepherding of the economy according to Old Testament economics, however, is everyone’s concern. An illustration from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster. Public domain.

Outside Canada, writes Natural Security columnist Chris Wood,  dangerous magical thinking — what he calls Old Testament Economics — “is increasingly being called out for its error by economists more based in reality … a Reformation is sweeping the ecclesiastical strongholds of market idolatry.” Within Canada, the reality accepted by a growing body of economists is dismissed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his “secular congregation” — and that should concern everyone, writes Wood. An excerpt of his new column, Kool-Aid Economics (subscription):

Canadians have been aware for some time that their Prime Minister subscribes to an arcane fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Being the polite and generally go-along types we are, we have quite properly left his faith between the man and his God. However, it is now evident that Canada’s P.M. is a credulous disciple of another not-so-fringe and much more dangerous faith, about which we have every right to be deeply concerned.

That cultic faith is Old Testament economics.

Stephen Harper is an acolyte of an especially purist strain of neo-liberalism, a pseudo-scientific theology replete with parables, miracles and catechisms of faith. It is to reliable modeling of reality roughly what witches and alchemists were to modern science. (Then again, Harper might welcome the parallel; he has spent most of his majority term metaphorically stoning Canada’s public scientists and burning their labs.)

Nonetheless, among this faith’s central tenets is the idea that to make a profitable omelette, some eggs just gotta break. Or, as Harper himself has intoned, justifying his refusal to defend his country’s environment or the global climate: “No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country.”

It’s the black and white thinking of dogma, like good and evil, believer or heretic. Choose one: a paycheque or, you know, air. We have a tragic history of this illusion in my country, where the rotten-egg stench of a pulp mill — often a town’s only reason for being — was colloquially described as ‘the smell of money’ … log in (subscription required*) to read Kool-Aid Economics.  

Click here for Chris Wood’s Natural Security column page,  or here to subscribe or purchase a $1 site day pass.

*Facts and Opinions is a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate your interest and support:  for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. A subscription is required for most F&O original work. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in theform on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

 

 

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Chubby Checker, Twisting through the years

 

Chubby Checker singing at his wedding reception in 1964 while his bride, Catharina Lodders, dances with a guest. Photo by Jack T. Franklin. Public domain via Wikimedia

Chubby Checker singing at his wedding reception in 1964 while his bride, Catharina Lodders, dances with a guest. Photo by Jack T. Franklin. Public domain via Wikimedia

Chubby Checker wasn’t getting much credit for his early contributions to rock ‘n’ roll during the disco dance craze of the 1970s.  Arts columnist Brian Brennan reports in his new time capsule piece that Checker viewed the popular dances of the day as little more than variations of his big 1960 hit, The Twist. An excerpt of Brennan’s Brief Encounters column: Twisting the Years Away: Chubby Checker:

At age 36, dressed in spangled white jumpsuit with neckline plunging to the waist, Chubby Checker looked vaguely silly, like Elvis in Vegas. A dance routine in which a man pretends to grind out cigarette butts with his feet might seem a shaky foundation on which to build an enduring musical career. But there he was, 17 years after hitting the big time with The Twist, still twisting away as if his life depended on it.

Disco dancing was all the rage when I saw him performing at a Calgary nightclub in 1977, and Checker was mightily annoyed that nobody was giving him credit for starting the craze. Didn’t they know that he was the one who originated the practice of dancing to rock ’n’ roll songs without touching one’s partner? Didn’t they know that he, Chubby Checker, had given the world a great new Charleston for the 1960s?

The latest addition in 1977 to Checker’s seemingly endless supply of novelty dance tunes had been something called The Rush but it failed to catch on. “It was played on 90 radio stations the first week and then – as if they all got a signal – they stopped playing it,” he told me. “It’s not good enough, it’s not fair. Disco owes its existence to me. If it wasn’t for me, this club wouldn’t be here. They’ll probably make me a star when I’m dead.” … log in to read  Twisting the Years Away: Chubby Checker (subscription*).

*You’ll find lots of great free stories inside our site, but much of our original work is behind a paywall — we do not sell advertising. We do need and appreciate your support (a day pass is a buck and monthly subscription costs less than a cup of coffee), but if you’d like to give us a try before throwing pennies our way, email Editor@factsandopinions.com, and I will send you a complimentary day pass. 

Here is Brian Brennan’s columnist page;  here is F&O’s page to purchase a subscription or $1 site day pass

*Facts and Opinions is a boutique for slow journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate your interest and support:  for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. A subscription is required for most F&O original work. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in theform on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

 

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Kool-Aid Economics

An illustration from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster. Public domain.

An illustration from Bible Pictures and What They Teach Us by Charles Foster, 1897. Public domain.

CHRIS WOOD: NATURAL SECURITY  
September 26, 2014

Canadians have been aware for some time that their Prime Minister subscribes to an arcane fundamentalist strain of Christianity. Being the polite and generally go-along types we are, we have quite properly left his faith between the man and his God. However, it is now evident that Canada’s P.M. is a credulous disciple of another not-so-fringe and much more dangerous faith, about which we have every right to be deeply concerned.

That cultic faith is Old Testament economics.

Stephen Harper is an acolyte of an especially purist strain of neo-liberalism, a pseudo-scientific theology replete with parables, miracles and catechisms of faith. It is to reliable modeling of reality roughly what witches and alchemists were to modern science. (Then again, Harper might welcome the parallel; he has spent most of his majority term metaphorically stoning Canada’s public scientists and burning their labs.)

Nonetheless, among this faith’s central tenets is the idea that to make a profitable omelette, some eggs just gotta break. Or, as Harper himself has intoned, justifying his refusal to defend his country’s environment or the global climate: “No country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country.”

It’s the black and white thinking of dogma, like good and evil, believer or heretic. Choose one: a paycheque or, you know, air. We have a tragic history of this illusion in my country, where the rotten-egg stench of a pulp mill — often a town’s only reason for being — was colloquially described as ‘the smell of money’.

This magical thinking was always dangerous in the way delusion is normally dangerous. But at last, in a highly welcome development, it is increasingly being called out for its error by economists more based in reality (think of these as the Communitarians of the faith, or perhaps the Pope Francis Catholics). In fact, something rather like a Reformation is sweeping the ecclesiastical strongholds of market idolatry.

In recent months, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (both widely regarded as citadels of neo-liberal doctrine), investors groups representing roughly a quarter of the entire world’s GDP, and several high-power, big-money, heavily credentialed independent research groups, have called out the central falsehood of the Canadian Prime Minister’s zero-sum dogma.

Sophie’s choice is a false one. We don’t need to sacrifice our biological living quarters to earn a livelihood. The ‘smell of money,’ the tradeoff of clean lakes and streams for an income, the jobs-v-climate shakedown; these are all snake oil, the distracting prestidigitation of stage magic, the babble of fraudulent preachers talking in tongues and waving a fistful of vipers.

They may not quite amount to Luther’s 95 Theses, but here is just a little of what the Reformation in economics has been asserting:

The World Bank finds in a recent publication that tackling climate change would boost world gross economic product by $2.6 trillion within 16 years. Even if only the United States, China, Brazil, India, Mexico and the European Union acted to cut emissions, world GDP would still rise 1.5 percent more than on its current track.

Prime Minister Harper’s secular congregation dismisses the idea of penalizing greenhouse emissions with a price on carbon as a “job killer.” The International Monetary Fund, however, says that far from shrinking Canadians’ prosperity, establishing a carbon tax of about $30 per ton of CO2 emitted, and designed (like one in place in the province of British Columbia since 2008) to be ‘recycled’ through reductions in other taxes, would actually boost the country’s growth by close to 0.8 per cent of GDP — about as much as Canada’s economy expanded in the first three months of 2014.

Then there’s the price, apparent to those occupying the real world, of not acting to stem increasing climate damage and reduced natural security.

An independent study led by three wealthy capitalists in the United States, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and funded partly by the Rockefeller Foundation, has warned that faith-based neo-liberal laissez faire on climate instability, far from promoting prosperity, will cost America trillions of dollars.

Sea-level rise alone puts more than US$700 billion in coastal property at near-term risk. In a smaller Canadian study, the University of Toronto-affiliated Mowat Centre projected that property value lost to climate-driven declines in Great Lakes water levels will cost lakefront home-owners in Ontario $794 million by 2030.

Most recently, international investors representing financial assets worth $24 trillion — yes, trillion; that’s more than a quarter of the entire world’s 2012 economic product — urged national leaders to take much stronger action to limit climate disruption. They are concerned for their investments. 

They have understood that there are not two sets of accounts, nor can the one marked ‘nature’ be drawn down perpetually to inflate another marked ‘wealth.’ This particular economic fable could be once be rationalized, if not justified, by the appearance that there was always another valley to deforest, another mountain to mine and seacoast to fish out, just beyond the next hill. Even that has been counter-factual since at least 198O. As I have observed before, humanity is now in an ahistorical but increasingly acute state of habitat scarcity. There are no more valleys over the next hill.

But when fact collides with faith, we know which usually wins. Indeed, the neo-liberalite catechism accepts even more fundamentally irrational beliefs than that as inerrant doctrine: ‘perfect knowledge’, ‘the invisible hand’, ‘infinite substitutability,’ ‘rational self-interest,’ the universal blessings of ‘comparative advantage’ and the evanescent Grail of the ‘free market’ are also core articles of the creed.

Mystical thinking almost always leads to a painful collision with reality—often most painful when mixed with politics, at any level. The television brought this point home to me recently with a documentary about the Biblically deranged Reverend Jim Jones, who successfully convinced 900 people to poison their children and themselves with tainted Kool-Aid in a jungle clearing.

Rev. Harper’s Kool-Aid economics are contributing to many times that many deaths every year. They may even do for the jungle.

Copyright Chris Wood 2014

Contact: cwood@factsandopinions.com

Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper. Photo by Greg Locke, Copyright 2014

Further reading:

 World Bank: http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2014/06/20/000456286_20140620100846/Rendered/PDF/889080WP0v10Bo0elopment0Main0report.pdf

 Bloomberg/Paulson group: http://riskybusiness.org/

Mowat Centre: http://www.mowatcentre.ca/wp-content/uploads/publications/89_low_water_blues.pdf

IMF: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2014/wp14174.pdf 

Global investors: http://www.unep.org/NewsCentre/default.aspx?DocumentID=2796&ArticleID=10984

 

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On Middle East context and media

 

Among the 21st century weaponry the American military is deploying against columnist Jim McNiven’s “eighth century caliphate” is the Tomahawk cruise missile. This one was launched Sept. 23 from an American warship on station in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Navy photo

Among the 21st century weaponry the American military is deploying against columnist Jim McNiven’s “eighth century caliphate” is the Tomahawk cruise missile. This one was launched Sept. 23 from an American warship on station in the Persian Gulf. U.S. Navy photo

Put events in the Middle East in context, Thoughtlines columnist Jim McNiven urges in a new column. “Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are working their way through a kind of 100-years of religious war, partially similar to that between Protestants and Catholics that devastated Germany in the 16th and 17th Centuries,” he writes. Excerpt of Islamic State threat a media creation:

The popular media, always looking for the next big thing, has fastened upon the swift victories and social media brutalities of the group calling itself Islamic State.1 The various media have portrayed the organization as a worldwide threat and a number of governments have organized themselves to deal with it, led by the United States. 

You have to read between the lines on this one. First, this terrible threatening force is actually weaker than the Taliban force that was over-running Afghanistan in 2002. That push ended when a few American spotters on the ground called in coordinates for bomber strikes. Deserts are unlike Vietnam: there is no jungle canopy to hide in. Very quickly, the Taliban were back in their mountains where they have mostly been ever since.

ISIS, or IS, is also in the desert and, to my knowledge, has no air capability. You may have noticed that the ISIS advance did not hold up any better than the Taliban against American drones and fighters, once they were deployed. In Iraq, the only mountains for an ISIS retreat are home to the Kurds, a Sunni nationality that has a very different agenda than the Arabs in ISIS. There, ISIS personnel will have to hide in the cities they have captured, but then a collapse from lack of munitions or money is but a matter of time. These guys are incapable of building or producing anything; they can only pillage and plunder. … click to read Islamic State threat a media creation.

Click here for Jim McNiven’s columnist page or here to subscribe or purchase a $1 site day pass*

Elsewhere: France 24 obtained a video by a student in Raqqa, Syria, taken this week before Arab and American bombs began falling on the city. It’s a surreal YouTube glimpse of daily life under fundamentalist control: armed men stopping the female student and tell her to behave, by fully covering her face; there is also an overheard conversation in an Internet cafe. In it, a covered Muslim French woman and her family are overheard arguing, and they plead with her to return. “I’m not planning to come back, Mama … I’m happy here.” 

 

*Facts and Opinions is a boutique for select journalism,  sustained entirely by readers. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate your interest and support:   you can subscribe to F&O or buy a one-day pass for $1. A subscription is required for most F&O original work. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in theform on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

 

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The Poison in Afghanistan Politics

KABUL, Afghanistan -- American Secretary of State John Kerry Shakes Hands With Afghan Presidential Candidates Abdullah and Ghani on August 8, 2014. U.S. State Department photo, Public Domain

KABUL, Afghanistan — American Secretary of State John Kerry with Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, then Afghan Presidential Candidates, August 8, 2014. Their back room deal over-rode Afghans democratic exercise, in which millions defied threats to have their votes cast, writes Manthorpe. U.S. State Department photo, Public Domain

Afghanistan’s unity deal contains poisonous seeds which will pollute the country’s politics, writes International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe. Afghans turned out in their millions, defying Taliban and other threats, to have their votes cast. Ghani, Abdullah, with Kerry and other outsiders as handmaidens, over-rode that democratic exercise, argues Manthorpe. “Their backroom deal keeps at the hub of power all the corrupt and often brutal regional warlords and dispensers of patronage who have blighted Afghan politics.” An excerpt of his new F&O column, Afghan unity deal ensures future conflict (subscription):

As rival candidates for power in Afghanistan signed a power-sharing deal on Sunday, an understandable sigh of relief swept through the corridors of power in those countries that have expended troops and treasure in the last dozen years trying to get the central Asian nation on its feet.

In the six months since the first round of the presidential elections it looked as though the whole Afghan project might collapse into new chaos as the two main candidates, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, exchanged increasingly bitter allegations of vote-rigging.

It has taken vigorous and persistent arm-twisting by United States Secretary of State John Kerry and many others to bludgeon Ghani and Abdullah to agree to a government of national unity. Under the pact, Ghani will be President and Abdullah has been given the authority to appoint a Chief Executive – essentially a Prime Minister – a job he is likely to grab himself.

However, the details of the deal contain poisonous seeds, which will pollute the new Afghan political process in coming years, and probably within months. An early indication of the troubles ahead came with Abdullah’s insistence that the results of the United Nations-supervised audit by the Independent Election Commission of the results of June’s run-off vote for the presidency not be published …. read Afghan unity deal ensures future conflict (Log in first; subscription or day pass* required)

Click here for Jonathan Manthorpe’s columnist page or here to subscribe or purchase a $1 site day pass

Facts and Opinions is a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is sustained entirely by readers: we do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes.  Why? We appreciate your interest and support:  for $2.95 (the price of a cheap brew) you can subscribe to F&O for a month. If that breaks your budget, a one-day pass is $1. A subscription is required for most F&O original work. Subscribe for free to Frontlines by entering your address in theform on the right (we won’t share your address), or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

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Afghan unity deal ensures future conflict

KABUL, Afghanistan -- American Secretary of State John Kerry Shakes Hands With Afghan Presidential Candidates Abdullah and Ghani on August 8, 2014. U.S. State Department photo, Public Domain

KABUL, Afghanistan — American Secretary of State John Kerry with Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, then Afghan Presidential Candidates, August 8, 2014. Photo by U.S. State Department, Public Domain

JONATHAN MANTHORPE    
September 24, 2014

As rival candidates for power in Afghanistan signed a power-sharing deal on Sunday, an understandable sigh of relief swept through the corridors of power in those countries that have expended troops and treasure in the last dozen years trying to get the central Asian nation on its feet.

In the six months since the first round of the presidential elections it looked as though the whole Afghan project might collapse into new chaos as the two main candidates, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, exchanged increasingly bitter allegations of vote-rigging.

It has taken vigorous and persistent arm-twisting by United States Secretary of State John Kerry and many others to bludgeon Ghani and Abdullah to agree to a government of national unity. Under the pact, Ghani will be President and Abdullah has been given the authority to appoint a Chief Executive – essentially a Prime Minister – a job he is likely to grab himself.

However, the details of the deal contain poisonous seeds, which will pollute the new Afghan political process in coming years, and probably within months. An early indication of the troubles ahead came with Abdullah’s insistence that the results of the United Nations-supervised audit by the Independent Election Commission of the results of June’s run-off vote for the presidency not be published.

This, together with the bartering over the power-sharing deal itself, has effectively negated both the April primary election and the June run-off. Afghans turned out in their millions, and defied Taliban threats and efforts to disrupt the process, in order to have their voices heard. Ghani and Abdullah, with Kerry and other outside officials acting as handmaidens, have overridden that exercise. Their backroom deal keeps at the hub of power all the corrupt and often brutal regional warlords and dispensers of patronage who have blighted Afghan politics since the ouster of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago. Those familiar faces were all lined up as photos were taken at the signing ceremony in the Presidential Palace in Kabul on Sunday.

Mir-e, Afghanistan -- United States Army Sgt. Joseph Evans scans the area through while Spc. Brendon Quisenberry pulls rear security during a route reconnaissance mission near Mir-e, Afghanistan, April 4, 2007. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel, Public Domain

Mir-e, Afghanistan — United States Army Sgt. Joseph Evans scans the area through while Spc. Brendon Quisenberry pulls rear security during a route reconnaissance mission near Mir-e, Afghanistan, April 4, 2007. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Michael L. Casteel, Public Domain

One of the first tasks of the new administration will be to sign a security agreement with the U.S. and another with NATO. This will allow up to 15,000 foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan to provide a degree of security against the Taliban, whose insurrection has gathered ground in the months of political deadlock, and to try to create a skilled and professional Afghan national army.

That is likely to be a relatively smooth process. Far more troublesome will be the distribution of lucrative positions in the new administration to the backers of Ghani and Abdullah. If the crowds of supplicants who constantly surround Abdullah is any guide, he has seriously over-promised the rewards of victory that his supporters can expect.

This process of carving up the patronage of appointments is going to be a lengthy and potentially fraught business. One outcome of the lack of a clear, acknowledged winner of the election is that neither Ghani nor Abdullah has a mandate to overrule the other. At best, the new government of Afghanistan is going to be an exercise in opacity in which everything is negotiated and bargained behind closed and muffled doors. At worst – and this, sadly, is more likely than not – Afghanistan is going to have rival administrations or two parallel governments.

Abdullah has been promised “parity” in senior economic and security appointments. This duopoly is ingrained in the power-sharing deal with the creation of a new Council of Ministers, which will operate alongside the Cabinet. The council is to be chaired by Abdullah, who will, of course, pack its benches with those to whom he is beholden.

Who has the power or authority to decide what in the new Afghanistan is going to be a nightmare. A looming bad dream is going to be how to deal with the Taliban. Ghani is open to negotiations with the remnants of the Muslim religious fanatics who held power in Kabul from September 1996 until pushed out in the American-led assault in December 2001.

Abdullah, on the other hand, is against reconciliation with the Taliban, and they don’t like him either. Abdullah has significant backing from the Northern Alliance, a loose gathering of ethnic minority warlords that the Americans used as the main shock troops against the Taliban and their brethren Al-Qaida terrorists in 2001.

The embedding of corruption and patronage into the Afghan political system by this power sharing deal is going to do nothing to revive what is one of the poorest economies in the world. The political stalemate and uncertainties of the last six months have not only worsened the economic situation, but also revived the opium poppy industry, which had shown some signs of being contained. The prospect of a prolonged struggle for power between the Abdullah and Ghani camps, punctuated by rival tollgating, will be no encouragement for investors to get involved in Afghanistan. The exception will be the most risk-averse operations, who are usually skilled at functioning in corrupt systems.

The power-sharing agreement is little more than a temporary truce, which allows the nations involved in the intervention of the last dozen years to declare victory and go home. But this deal is so flawed, it is only a prelude to the next unhappy chapter.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Presence patrol around FOB Fenty  U.S. Army Pfc. Nicholas Peterson, team member, Troop B, 4th Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, of Reedsport, Ore., pulls security with his team, during a presence patrol around Forward Operating Base Fenty, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, Aug. 22, 2013. The purpose of the early morning patrol was to check the security of Fenty's perimeter as well as engage the local population. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Margaret Taylor, 129th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment/RELEASED)

Forward Operating Base Fenty, Afghanistan –United States Army soldiers on a “presence patrol” in Nangarhar province on, Aug. 22, 2013. Photo by Sgt. Margaret Taylor, U.S. Army National Guard, Public domain

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Kimber’s book on The Cuban Five wins award

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber

Big congratulations to Stephen Kimber, whose book What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five, won the Evelyn Richardson Non-Fiction Award this weekend at the 2014 East Coast Literary Awards.

The awards, which celebrate Atlantic writers and writing, were held Saturday at the Institute of Applied Creativity at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax. The J.M. Abraham Poetry Award went to Don Domanski for Bite Down Little Whisper (Brick Books), while William Kowalski was awarded the Thomas Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award for The Hundred Hearts (Dundurn).

Writes Kimber on his book web site: 

The Five were members of a Cuban intelligence network sent to Florida in the 1990s to infiltrate Miami exile groups plotting terrorist attacks against Cuba. Though they helped prevent a number of terrorist attacks, the Five were arrested by the FBI in 1998, tried, convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Three of the five are still in jail.

Although their case is still little known in the United States, international human rights organizations — including Amnesty International and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention — have criticized their treatment in the U.S. justice system, and a dozen Nobel laureates have written in their support.

Click here to buy a digital version of What Lies Across the Water, for $9.99 Canadian, on Kimber’s site. The site includes a link to purchase the physical book via Amazon.

You can read an excerpt of Kimber’s book, published by Fernwood, in F&O’s magazine section:  Heroes of the Revolution? The Cuban Five. Kimber is a journalist and university professor based in Atlantic Canada.

   – Deborah Jones

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