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Afghanistan: Seventeen Years Too Late

“The Taliban have committed, to our satisfaction, to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US official in charge of Afghanistan peace talks, on Tuesday. So why didn’t the United States have this discussion with the Taliban seventeen years ago, in October 2001?

The American representative has just spent six days negotiating with the Taliban in Qatar, and he has their promise that they will never let terrorist groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State use Afghanistan as a base. The Taliban are Islamists and nationalists (despite the incompatibility of these two principles), but they were never international terrorists.

The next steps are setting dates for the final American withdrawal from Afghanistan (in around 18 months) and opening direct talks between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban. There is still much to do, but this could work.
So congratulations to Donald Trump – and shame on the Washington analysts and experts who could never bring themselves to recommend just ending America’s longest-ever war. Some of them are the same people who didn’t realise seventeen years ago that these talks should have happened then.

The US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was always about 9/11 and nothing else. The country was targeted because the Taliban, who had come to power five years before, had allowed Osama bin Laden and his band of Islamist extremists to set up a base in Afghanistan, and they were assumed to be implicated in the horrendous attacks on New York and Washington.

That assumption was almost certainly wrong. The Taliban had come to power in 1996 after a ten-year war against the Soviet invaders and the seven-year civil war that followed. They had been a long time out in the hills, and they were really enjoying power.

What the Taliban did in power was both ridiculous and atrocious. They drove women from public life and closed girls’ schools. They made men grow beards and women wear burqas. They banned music, movies and television.

They mutilated people for small offences and executed them for slightly bigger ones (most of which were not offences at all in other Muslim countries). And they took absolutely no interest in the rest of the world. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan really didn’t have a foreign policy at all.

But the leader of the regime, Mullah Omar, was a personal friend of Osama bin Laden, whom he had met in Pakistan in the 1980s. (Both men were then involved in the war against the Soviet occupation.)

So when bin Laden was forced out of his refuge in Sudan by the Clinton administration in 1996, Omar let him set up camp in southern Afghanistan – and told him not to carry out political activities on Afghan soil. Bin Laden abused that hospitality, and approved the 9/11 attacks from there. (The actual planning was mostly done in Germany.)

Did Mullah Omar have anything to do with the attacks? Did he even know about them in advance? Try to imagine the telephone conversation. (Bin Laden didn’t speak Pashto, but Omar did speak Arabic.)

“Omar, habibi, it’s Osama. How are the wives and children?”

“Not bad, thanks. Yours?”

“Listen, Omar, I’m giving you a heads-up. Next week my guys are going to attack the United States and kill a few thousand Americans, and I’m afraid they’re going to blame you too. So you’ll get invaded and overthrown, and your Taliban guys will have to spend another ten years in the hills being hunted by gunships. But it’s in a good cause. I hope you’re OK with that.”

“Sure, Osama. Good luck with it.”

I’m pretty sure that conversation never happened. Why would Osama bin Laden tell Mullah Omar about the attack in advance, and run the risk that he wasn’t OK with it? Most of the Taliban would certainly have been outraged by the mortal danger bin Laden was exposing them to.

Could the US have persuaded the Taliban to hand bin Laden over in order not to be invaded and driven from power? Maybe you couldn’t have persuaded Mullah Omar, but many of the younger leaders were really not looking forward to being bombed out of the cities and chased back into the hills.

And if they don’t listen right away, spread some money around. You can’t buy religious fanatics, but you can sometimes rent them if you find the right words to go with the money.

Why wasn’t it at least tried? Probably because there was a strong need to ‘kick ass’ in the United States. Such a horrible crime couldn’t be answered with mere diplomacy and legal proceedings. What was needed was bloody vengeance and catharsis. So Afghanistan got invaded, and several hundred thousand people died in the next seventeen years.

And since it has always been very easy to invade Afghanistan (though almost impossible to stay there), one invasion didn’t provide enough catharsis. Thirty months later George W. Bush also invaded Iraq, although there were no terrorists there (and no ‘weapons of mass destruction’), and hundreds of thousands more died.

And now they are finally negotiating the very same deal with the Taliban that could probably have been made in 2001. It would have saved a lot of time.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 7, 18 and 20. (“The American…terrorists”; “What…television”; “And if…money”; and “And…died”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Vegetarians, Carnivores and Technology

“Right now, growing cells as meat instead of animals is a very expensive process,” said Yaakov Nahmias, founder and chief scientist of Israel-based startup Future Meat Technologies. But it will get cheaper, and it probably will be needed.

Global population is heading for 10 billion by 2050. (Current world population: 7.7 billion.) Average global incomes will triple in the same period, enabling more people to eat meat-rich diets.

“We need a significant overhaul, changing the global food system on a scale not seen before,” says Professor Tim Lang of the University of London, one of the 37 scientific co-authors from sixteen different countries who wrote the a report by the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health that launches in Jakarta on Friday. But we’ve heard it all before.

It takes seven kilos of grain to grow one kilo of beef. 70% of the world’s fresh water is used to irrigate crops. We have appropriated three-quarters of the world’s fertile land for food production, and we’ll need the rest by 2050. The world’s stocks of seafood will have collapsed by 2050. It’s all true, but we’re sick of being nagged.

And still they bang on. The EAT-Lancet Commission even has a diet that will save the planet. Cut your beef consumption by 90% (i.e. one steak a month). Eat more beans and pulses (three times more) and more nuts and seeds (four times more). Going vegetarian or vegan will help even more. That’s all true too – but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

Or at least, it’s not going to happen by everybody turning vegan, vegetarian, or just ‘flexitarian’. No doubt there will in due course be high taxes on meat and fish, and official propaganda campaigns to persuade people to change their eating habits, and some people will change.

Some people already have: the Vegan Society in Britain claims that the number of vegans in the country has quadrupled in the last four years. But not enough people will switch to a plant-based diet soon enough, or maybe ever. We need to bring the rest of the population along, and few things are more persistent than cultural dietary preferences. Like eating meat.

India is home to almost one-third for the world’s vegetarians, but the local variations are immense and deeply entrenched: 75% of people are vegetarians in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, but fewer than 2% are in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal.

The most enthusiastic meat-eaters are in the richer countries, and as other countries join their club (like China), they start eating more meat too. So clearly there would be a huge market for real meat that didn’t come from cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens, but tastes right, feels right in the mouth, and doesn’t trash the environment.

We’re not talking about the famous $325,000 hamburger patty made from beef cells immersed in a growth medium that was triumphantly cooked on television six years ago.

We’re talking about a proper steak with muscle and fat cells and the right shape, taste and texture – but not one produced by the familiar process that uses huge amounts of fertile land, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, and involves slaughtering live animals. That is Yaakov Nahmias’s goal, and he’s pretty close now.

Future Meat Technologies produces its ‘cell-based meat’ in bioreactors, growing it on lattices that give it shape and texture, but we’re not talking about giant vats in a lab. He plans to give small units to existing farmers, who might still be rearing some beef cattle too for the luxury end of the market.

“With these two plays–a more efficient bioreactor and a distributed manufacturing model–we can essentially drop the cost down to about $5 a kilogram [$2.27 a pound],” said Nahmias. Meat giant Tyson Foods recently put $2.2 million of seed money into his company, and a dozen other start-ups are chasing the same goal: Memphis Meat, JUST, Finless Foods,
Meatable – a total of 30 labs around the world.

How big a threat is this ‘cell-based meat’ to the traditional cattle industry? Big enough that the US Cattlemen’s Association has petitioned the government to restrict the words ‘meat’ and ‘beef’ to products “derived directly from animals raised and slaughtered.” A tricky definition, since it would mean that wild deer are not made of meat, but the ranchers are clearly running scared.

Coming up behind cell-based meat there’s the even newer concept of ‘Solar Foods’: a Finnish company called just that is using electricity from solar panels to electrolyse water and produce hydrogen. The hydrogen is fed to bacteria, and the product is an edible food that is half carbohydrates, half fats and protein.

It is just as good as soya as an animal food, and it uses no land at all. No greenhouse gas emissions either, and the first factory producing it opens in two years’ time. Technology alone can’t save us, but it can certainly shift the odds in our favour.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 14. (“India…Bengal”; and “How…scared”)
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Congo: Half a Loaf

‘Half a loaf is better than no bread’ is what you tell yourself to justify giving in to a rotten deal, and there’s a choir of African leaders singing that chorus now. They pretend to be celebrating the elevation of Felix Tshitsekedi to the presidency in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the big Congo), but they are privately lamenting it while accepting that it is probably the least bad option now.

Felix Tshisekedi is the 55-year-old son of Etienne Tshisekedi, the founder of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress, the DRC’s main opposition party. For 25 years he defied the dictators who have robbed and ruined the country, spent much of his life in exile, and became a national hero. He died last year.

Etienne Tshisekedi was never keen to see his son succeed him, fearing that Felix lacked the ability and commitment to lead the party, but in March he was chosen as Etienne’s successor by the party’s leading members. And last November, he showed his true colours.
The current dictator, Joseph Kabila, had to leave power at least for a while, since the constitution allows presidents only two consecutive five-year terms. He could legally come back after another five years, but in the meantime he had to find a presidential candidate who would do his bidding and keep his seat warm.

The official candidate was duly named – an associate of Kabila’s called Emmanuel Shadary – but it was clear that a single opposition candidate might win the presidency if the vote was fair. The DRC’s 84 million people are sick of living in a potentially rich country where most people are desperately poor even by central African standards.

So all the opposition parties got together in November to pick a single presidential candidate. Felix Tshisekedi was there and went along with it when they chose that candidate, Martin Fayulu. But the following day he broke with the other opposition parties and declared his own candidacy.

Was it just pique, or did he get a better offer? In retrospect, it was probably the latter.

The presidential elections were duly held at the end of December, and to everybody’s astonishment Tshisekedi won. The official candidate, Shadary. came last. So why isn’t everybody celebrating the triumphant return of democracy to the Democratic Republic of Congo?

Because nobody believes the numbers. Opinion polls before the vote had Fayulu winning with between 39% and 43% of the vote, Tshisekedi coming a distant second with between 21% and 25% and official regime candidate Shadary straggling in with only 14%-17 So the united opposition should have won – but it didn’t.

Fayulu was leading Tshisekedi by almost two-to-one in the opinion polls. How and why did it come to pass that the official results gave Tshisekedi 38% of the vote and Fayulu only 34%?

Fayulu cried foul. The African Union said it had “serious doubts” about the result and announced that it was sending a delegation to the DRC. And the influential Catholic Church of the DRC, which deployed 40,000 election observers, reported that the official results did not match its findings.

What probably happened is as follows. The outgoing president, Joseph Kabila, inherited his power from his father, a warlord called Laurent Kabila, when the latter was assassinated by his bodyguard in 2000. He also inherited the military commanders who brought his father to power, and held the real power in the regime. They, or their successors, still do.

There was never agreement among these commanders about whether Joseph Kabila was the right front-man for the regime. Those who wanted a change may well have chosen Shadary as the regime’s new official candidate against Kabila’s wishes. Or maybe Kabila simply realised that Shadary wasn’t going to win even with a lot of help from the people counting the ballots.

It appears that Kabila seduced Felix Tshisekedi with the promise of the presidency, and made sure the voting results came out in his favour. It was a stroke of political genius, because it actually looks like the opposition won. It didn’t.

As soon as Tshisekedi’s victory was ‘confirmed’, he declared that “I pay tribute to President Joseph Kabila. Today we should no longer see him as an adversary, but rather, a partner in democratic change in our country.” And almost everybody outside the DRC is sorrowfully going along with the deceit.

The African Union has ‘postponed’ its mission to the DRC indefinitely, and two respected African leaders, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa, have sent Tshisekedi their congratulations. The southern African regional group SADC has also welcomed Tshisekedi’s ‘victory’, and urged all Congolese to support the president-elect in his bid to maintain “unity, peace and stability”.

That’s the heart of the matter. Public protests over the rigged election will be met with massive violence, and risk tumbling the DRC into another catastrophic civil war. At least this will be the country’s first non-violent transfer of power, so the rest of Africa is telling the Congolese to swallow their pride and bide their time. Half a loaf is better than none.
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To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“What…ballots”)

Trump and Erdogan: Bringers of Chaos

16 January 2019

“Where America retreats, chaos follows,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo last week. It’s not the sort of remark you’d expect from an American diplomat only three weeks after President Donald Trump declared that US troops were pulling out of Syria. Is it possible that behind Pompeo’s severe and even pompous exterior there lurks a secret ironist?

Probably not. Pompeo truly believes (like many American evangelical Christians) that the United States is engaged in a struggle of good against evil in the Middle East. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture,” he said three years ago. He may just be angry at Trump, in a passive-aggressive way, for abandoning Syria to the (evil) Iranian and Russian forces that back Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.

At any rate, Pompeo is right about the chaos that will follow, but it would be wrong to blame it all on Trump. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is much better informed than the American president and probably a lot smarter too, but he is just as impulsive, just as ruthless, just as much a bringer of chaos.

It was Erdogan, in a telephone conversation in mid-December, who persuaded Trump that pulling all the US troops out of Syria would be a good idea. Turkey would be happy to take the strain instead.

Trump has always opposed America’s endless Middle Eastern wars, so he swallowed Erdogan’s suggestion hook, line and sinker – and tweeted his decision to pull the US troops out without discussing it with anybody. Only later did the remaining grown-ups in the White House explain to him that Erdogan planned to subjugate or kill America’s main allies in Syria, the Kurds.

To his credit, Trump hated the idea of betraying the Syrian Kurds, whose militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), suffered thousands of deaths while helping US forces to defeat the fanatical jihadis of Islamic State.

Trump still wanted to bring the US troops home, but now he had one condition. The Turks must promise not to invade north-eastern Syria and crush the YPG as soon as the US troops leave.

Erdogan replied that nothing Trump said or did could stop him from destroying these Kurdish ‘terrorists’ (who have never attacked Turkey). At which point, on Monday past, Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

All clear so far? Good.

You’d never guess, from the story thus far, that the United States and Turkey have been close allies for the past half-century, but the alliance is fading fast. Erdogan has been playing his own hand in the Middle East, and playing it quite badly.

The ‘Sultan’, as his admirers call him, wants to secure his own one-man rule and re-Islamise Turkey, which had evolved into a secular and democratic republic over the past eighty years. He also wants to promote Sunni Islam throughout the region. The two goals are not fully compatible, so he shifts position a lot.

When the revolt in Syria broke out in 2011 during the Arab spring, Erdogan supported it because Bashar al-Assad’s regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia Muslim sect. He kept the border open and let supplies and recruits flow into the rebels, including even the Islamic State extremists.

When Russia intervened militarily to save Assad in 2015, Erdogan was so angry that he even had the Turkish air force ambush and shoot down a Russian bomber. But he was almost equally angry with the United States, which had made a an alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria to fight against Islamic State.

The Kurds gradually choked off the aid coming in to Islamic State from Turkey, and IS (aka ‘Isis’) has now lost almost all its territory. So Erdogan told Trump he could bring the US troops home now, and Trump believed him. But what Erdogan actually wants to do is crush the Syrian Kurds, which he can do once the US troops leave.

Erdogan thinks the Syrian Kurds are allied with the Turkish Kurds, who make up one-fifth of Turkey’s population, live just across the border from Syria, and are currently at war with Erdogan’s regime. (That’s why he calls them ‘terrorists’.)

The weird thing is that four years ago Erdogan was on the brink of making peace with the Kurds. There was a ceasefire, the Turkish Kurds were no longer demanding independence, and he was negotiating a compromise settlement that enhanced Kurdish rights within Turkey.

But then he lost a parliamentary election in 2015, mainly because the Kurds stopped voting for him. So he re-opened the war against the Kurds, wrapped himself in the Turkish flag, and won the next election on an ultra-nationalist platform. All Kurds are now the enemy, they are all terrorists, and they must be crushed.

Given Erdogan’s ruthlessness and Trump’s volatility, I have no idea how all this works out. Badly, I suspect. But I actually admire Trump’s refusal to betray his allies, once he realised what Erdogan was up to. You don’t see that much in the Middle East.

Of course, it probably won’t last.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 16 and 17. (“The weird…crushed”)