Afghanistan — a missed chance for Obama

President Barack Obama will over time come to regret his decision to send another 30,000 men and women into war in Afghanistan, announced in a speech at West Point on 1 December 2009. More non-Afghan boots on the ground in Afghanistan will do nothing to make Americans more secure. To the contrary, the escalation will only help the Taliban recruit more men. And the more Western troops are stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Islamic-majority countries, the easier it will be for Al Qaeda to portray the US and its allies as “crusaders” coming to invade.

As Canadian columnist Gwynne Dyer reasoned in an article on the Afghan presidential election in early November, the blatantly rigged election that secured Afghan president Hamid Karzai another term in office could well have provided the political cover to abandon the doomed Afghan intervention: “…now is his best-ever chance to pull out, because the political train-wreck in Kabul gives him an ideal opportunity to renege on his foolish promises to pursue the war in Afghanistan until victory.” Obama did not use this chance to cut his losses.

What kind of “victory” is Obama hoping for by staying? The signs are not encouraging. For years, President Karzai’s power has barely extended beyond the capital, which is why he’s often nicknamed the “mayor of Kabul”. The provinces are ruled by powerful warlords, whose abuses of power and lawlessness back in the 1990s paved the way to power for the Taliban. Karzai’s administration and police force are one of the most corrupt in the world — the country was ranked 179 out of 180 countries evaluated by Transparency International in 2009 (only Somalia is worse). Hamid Karzai’s own brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who lives in the Southern city of Kandahar, is reputed to be a major player in the opium trade as well as being on the CIA payroll, writes the New York Times. US troops are propping up an unpopular, corrupt regime, just as they did in South Vietnam in the 1960s. Even Afghans who side with the government know that sooner or later the US will withdraw its troops, while the enemies of the present government will still be there and they will have to live with them somehow.

In deciding to stay the course and trying a “surge” (just like his predecessor in office), Obama will have pleased some generals and the political establishment in Washington, D.C., but failed his test as a new kind of politician. To his credit, Obama took his time to carefully consider his options and listen to advice from different sides. He was very deliberate about it. Somehow I can’t quite image John McCain taking this much time to come to a conclusion, had he won the election a year ago… Yet, the outcome was still a bad choice and the reasons given for it are utterly unconvincing to me and many others.

In his speech Obama kept lumping together the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Afghanistan and Pakistan, knowing like his predecessor that the memory of 9/11 is still powerful and that some political mileage can be gained from it. The problem with that line of argument though is that Al Qaeda did not really need any bases in Afghanistan to stage that attack on the US: 9/11 appears to have been planned mostly in Hamburg/Germany and in Florida.

Occupying the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan will be costly in blood and treasure, but looked at it rationally, it will do almost nothing to prevent future terrorist attacks in the US or Europe. If anything, it will help recruit for future attacks, just as the US military presence on bases inside Saudi Arabia after the 1990-1991 Gulf War became the main recruiting tool for 9/11 (which is one reason why 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis).

Gwynne Dyer in his article “Last Exit from Afghanistan”:

It was always nonsense: terrorists don’t need “bases” to plan their attacks. Regular armies need bases, but all terrorists need is a couple of safe houses somewhere. Controlling Afghanistan is almost entirely irrelevant to Western security, and that reality is also beginning to seep out into the public discussion in the United States.

Al Qaeda does not depend on Afghanistan. Most experts assume both Osama Bin Ladin and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban to be living in relative safety in next-door Pakistan, perhaps protected by the ISI, the powerful secret service of Pakistan that was allied to the Taliban when they first came to power in the 1990s. Remember that Pakistan was one of only three countries worldwide that diplomatically recognized the Taliban regime (the other two were fellow US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE).

Even if the Pakistani government and its organs were to fully cooperate with the US, the tribal regions along the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan have always only nominally been under control of the central government. This goes all the way back to the days of the British Empire in India, when the British could only pacify these regions by paying them not to attack.

Middle East expert Fawaz A. Gerges estimates in a CNN opinion piece (“Afghanistan is mission impossible”, 2 December 2009) that there are three times more Al Qaeda operatives in US-allied Pakistan than inside Afghanistan.

It was foolish for President George W. Bush to invade Iraq after 9/11 when the Al Qaeda camps were based elsewhere. It is foolish of Obama too to send more troops into harm’s way in Afghanistan, a graveyard of foreign invaders (from Alexander the Great and the Mongols to the Soviet Army). Yet it wouldn’t make any more sense to try to send those troops to Pakistan, the real hornet’s nest, whose large population would be deeply hostile to any such adventure.

The problem is not really that the US keeps sending troops to the wrong country, or maybe sending too few troops to get the job done, it is that military invasions are not the right tool for this job: You can not defeat Al Qaeda with conventional armies any more than you can do surgery with a hammer. Al Qaeda is not fighting a conventional war and it can not be defeated with conventional military means.

There are political reasons for terrorism. As long as the US remains allied with corrupt, unpopular regimes across the Middle East and Central/South Asia, domestic hostility against these regimes will always spill over into Anti-Americanism and the local presence of US troops will fan the Anti-Americanism. Defeating terrorism will have to start with better governments in countries that currently act as a breeding ground for terrorism and insurgency, with weeding out corruption, injustice and lack of development.

Isn’t it ironic that, compared to its image in other countries in the region, America as a country is surprisingly popular amongst ordinary people in Iran, maybe because for the last 30 years they have lived under a government that is not allied with and not bribed by the US, unlike say Egypt, Jordan or Pakistan, where corrupt and incompetent elites are seen as in the pocket of Washington.

Instead of primarily seeking military cooperation from political elites in client countries through funding and military pressure, the US would be better off nurturing projects to build civil society and to encourage those governments to invest in education, health care and a working judiciary. Based on the experience of the last eight years, Karzai is the wrong man to deliver such goods to his fellow citizens in Afghanistan.

When Obama will finally start to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan maybe 18 months from now or later, the US will have squandered hundreds of billions of dollars while hundreds and thousands will have got killed, without having fixed any of the problems that plague the country today.

At that point, the Afghan people will still have to solve their problems amongst themselves.

Revolution in Prague – 20 years of freedom

This week it will be twenty years since I had the privilege to become an eyewitness to the Velvet Revolution (Czech: sametová revoluce) in then Czechoslovakia. With close friends of mine I attended a mass demonstration at Letna Park in Prague to mobilize for a general strike the following day, which ended 4 decades of Communist Party rule.

The following is an account of these events that I wrote about 10 years later, with photographs taken on that cold winter day.

[Start of original article]

Revolution in Prague

I have long had friends in Czechoslovakia, some 100 km (60 miles) east of where I was born. In 1968 a massive invasion of Soviet, East German and other Warsaw pact armies ended “socialism with a human face”, a daring but short-lived experiment by liberal communist prime minister Alexander Dubcek. My friend later showed me underground leaflets distributed then, that he had secretly stashed away. I was only seven years old when that happened, but I still remember being frightened after hearing my father and uncles talking about whether the invasion could mean WW3.

Nine years later, a group of intellectuals formed a human rights organization called “Charta 77”. Its leaders were playwright Vaclav Havel and Jiri Dienstbier. Another prominent member was Petr Uhl. The opposition group was persecuted and its members spent many years in Czech prisons.

Following “perestroika” in Russia under Mikhail Gorbachev, political change built up momentum across Eastern Europe. Poland voted for a non-communist government. Hungary took down the barbed wire along its border to Austria, triggering a mass exodus of East Germans to the west. Mass demonstrations in Leipzig, Dresden and other east German cities followed. Then thousands of East Germans invaded the West German embassy in Prague, forcing the East German government to let them emigrate. Soon after, the Berlin wall and border checkpoints to West Germany were opened and millions of East Germans could travel west for the first time in four decades.

Infected by the bold spirit of their neighbours, Czech students publicly demonstrated near Vaclav square in the center of Prague, commemorating Czech students who had dared to demonstrate against Nazi occupation 50 years earlier. Despite the non-confrontational theme, police violently broke up the demonstration, brutally beating the students. Photos of the events emerged and public outrage followed. The national television eventually had to show pictures of the clubbing. This triggered growing mass demonstrations on Vaclav Square in central Prague, which got so big that they had to be moved to Letna Park, the usual site of the annual Mayday parade of the Communist Party (KSC). Two big rallies were to be held on Letna Park over the weekend, to spread the call for a general strike, to demonstrate to the Communist Party that it was isolated and that the people wanted it to resign.

When I saw the reports on the TV news, I decided to leave for the Czech border the very next morning. East of the Bohemian Forest the snow was about 30 cm (1 ft) deep. Bohemia was covered in white and the infamous “Bohemian Wind” was blowing. I experienced no particular problems at the border and found relatively little traffic on the wintery roads. My 4wd Audi took me to Teplice, in northern Bohemia, some 60 km (40 mls) south of Dresden, without any problems due to ice or snowdrifts.

My friends were surprised to see me, of course. Throughout the afternoon we watched television. All regular programming had been canceled and there were only interviews, live reports and speeches. All censorship had been dropped. Journalists reported about anything, said anything, gave a forum to anybody. I was probably watching the most free television in all of Europa at that moment. Finally it was announced that Vaclav Havel would speak. I was utterly amazed. The man who had all his plays banned, had been jailed, made to earn his living shoveling coal, probably the most stubborn oppositional in this country could speak freely to his compatriots. And speak he did, I don’t remember if it was for 30 minutes or an hour. The camera was his, and the audience too. That same afternoon there were a million people on Letna park, at a demonstration of the Obcanske Forum (civic forum, the largest organization within which was Charta 77).

I talked to my friend about going to Prague on Sunday together. His wife was worried what might happen. What if they had their pictures taken, got arrested and lost their jobs? But a million people had demonstrated already and Havel had been on TV. The Berlin Wall had been broken too. This was not Prague 1968 any more. This time it would work. Well, if he was going then so was she.

The roads were icy as we headed down to Prague the next day, but it was a pleasure to drive in the Audi. Letna Square is on one of the hills high above the centre of Prague, which makes it cold and windswept in the winter. We parked in the suburbs within walking distance and followed the crowds.

The first thing that surprised us was that there was no police. Usually, they were all over the place. Now, not one. I was going to witness an event with anywhere upwards of 500,000 people and would not see a single policeman all afternoon, in what until days ago could only have been described as a police state. Instead we saw students with white armbands, or civic forum badges, who took care of everything. The government must have decided that violence was too risky.

This ice-hockey stadium at the edge of the square was used by the speakers, amongst them Havel, Dienstbier and Petr Uhl, who had just been released from jail were he had been taken for spreading the (luckily mistaken) rumour that a student had been killed during the demonstration the previous weekend.

The crowd was so huge, it was difficult to see how big its was from anywhere in the middle. So I passed up my camera to one of these guys and they were kind enough to take some pictures in various directions. No one was paranoid about having their pictures taken any more. People had shaken off fear.

This is the view towards the stage. Many people were wearing ski hats or jackets in the colours of the Czechoslovakian flag. This was not just an anti-communist or anti-Stalinist event, since it had been a foreign invasion that suppressed freedom 21 years earlier. This was very much a nationalist event too. The revolution of 1989 was as much about reclaiming national sovereignty lost in 1968 as it was about restoring democracy lost in 1948.

That’s the view towards the right hand side of the square. I was told Letna park can hold one million people. It had been full on Saturday. Looks pretty full to me on that Sunday too!

The slogans on three of the banners read: “Step down!”, “Civic Forum” and “Free Elections!”

The Victory sign became popular over night, as a sign of confidence in the effectiveness of the general strike the following Monday.

“Free newspapers, radio and television” (my Czech is pretty rudimentary…) — a message against censorship

On the left (in red): “End one party elections!” Below: Valtr Komarek was a renowned economist who came out against the government.

Two of the young people who organized security, directing traffic and handing out information. Yes, it was cold and windy too.

A Skoda car (Prague license plate) with “I love civic forum” in the rear window.

A revolutionary family effort. The child in the middle holds a banner with “Svoboda” (Freedom) written on it

Stalinism hit its dead end. All shop windows were plastered with political messages, as were the underground (subway) stations that are the arteries of public transport in Prague.

Photographs of the violently crushed students demonstration that caused the outrage triggering the mass demonstrations.

Pictures of Alexander Dubcek, father of the “Prague Spring” of 1968 and of Mikhail Gorbachov whose hands-off policy discouraged the Czech communists from resorting to violence in the way the Chinese leadership had done at Tien-An-Men square earlier that year.

View towards the top end of Vaclav Square, with the National Army Museum in the back. In front of the museum is the Vaclav Monument, which most of us remember from pictures showing it surrounded by Russian tanks in August 1968.

A field of candles lit for the victims of the government.

Cheerful pedestrians were waving the V-sign at passing motorists who honked their horns in solidarity.

V-signs and flags every where — as along the street between Vaclav Monument and the museum.

People had been waiting for this day for at least 21 years. Until a few years aerlier the National Army Museum in the background still bore the bullet holes were it had been hit by Soviet tank artillery.

Ladas, Skodas, Trabants and Wartburgs in a freedom parade.

The following day was scheduled to be a general strike. The opposition groups were headed by well known intellectuals. The big demonstrations had all been in Prague. People still were not sure what the outcome would be in the smaller towns, away from the capital and how effective the strike call would be amongst industrial workers, such as the Skoda factories.

The right to go on strike

The right to go on strike
(See here for an English Translation of this flyer)

But Czechs have long held intellectuals in high respect, like to read and to watch plays. Famous actors, whole theaters and even national football (soccer) players publicly came out in support of the strike call. By Monday afternoon, when I was back in Germany, the figures were in: The strike was a great success, the government had lost every pretense of being in control and there was nothing else left but to withdraw in an as orderly way as possible. Within days, a transitional cabinet was established and former oppositionals took control of public institutions. An election later confirmed that communist majority had always been a carefully constructed fiction.

Vaclav Havel (president of the Czech Republic until February 2003) is one of the politicians who I respect most, for his courage, his non-violent struggle, his sense of humour and his humane values.

[End of original article]

Twenty years later

I went back to the Czech Republic about ten years later, with my wife and kids. We visited Prague as tourists. I was amazed how much everything had changed. I heard English spoken everywhere, where before most tourists were from East Germany or other parts of the Eastern Block. Prague had become a magnet for young people from all over the world.

Things have not been easy for people, as not all have materially benefited equally from the changes. The old planned economy suffered from low productivity and horrendous ecological problems (especially acid rain in the lignite mining areas in Northern Bohemia), but everybody had been guaranteed a job of some sort. Hopes had been so high after 40 years of repression and mismanagement that people were bound to be disappointed by reality (just as Americans were bound to be somewhat disappointed after voting for change in the 2008 US Presidential Election, I might add).

Rule by a repressive one party bureaucracy was a dead end for Czechoslovakia. Now the Czech Republic is a free country again. Its citizens need not fear being arrested or losing their jobs or be denied education for speaking their minds. They are free to travel and to trade and to seek opportunities.

The events of twenty years ago gave me hope in the human spirit. They showed me what people can achieve when they dare to dream, to follow their moral convictions and to reach out to their fellow human beings instead of being bowed by fear.

“Trau keiner Statistik…”

Today, in online chat with an American friend that touched on website statistics I posted the line:

“Never trust any statistics that you didn’t forge yourself.”

He replied that he liked the quote, which suggested to me that he hadn’t heard it before. This particular one liner frequently pops up in discussions of published numbers in Germany, especially if one disagrees with what they appear to show. You might call it the German equivalent of “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Its two common variants are “Ich traue keiner Statistik die ich nicht selbst gefaelscht habe” (I don’t trust any statistics that I didn’t forge myself) or as advice: “Traue keiner Statistik die du nicht selbst gefaelscht hast” (Don’t trust any statistics that you didn’t forge yourself).

I vaguely remembered that this line was usually attributed to Winston Churchill and found my friend’s reaction odd, because if this was a Churchill quote, it would be more likely to be known amongst English speakers than in Germany. A quick Google search confirmed my suspicions because hits centered on Germany, making it unlikely the quote was indeed from Churchill. The German-centric hits were no coincidence, because as it turns out the “quote” was a product of Nazi propaganda that has managed to survive the fall of the Reich by more than six decades.

According to research conducted by a member of the Baden-Wuerttemberg State Office of Statistics a couple of years ago, there is no verifiable source for the supposed “quote”. The Times of London had never heard of it. What’s more, it dovetails nicely with WWII Nazi propaganda that accused Churchill of exaggerating Allied successes and minimizing British losses (i.e. forging numbers). It does not really fit Churchill, because he was not known as a general skeptic on statistics, though he was suspicious of German claims (and for good reasons). The fake “quote” combines these two themes, skepticism of his opponents’ statistics and accusations of being a liar that the Nazis liked to smear him with.

Maybe better advice would be: “Don’t trust any quote that you didn’t forge yourself.” 😉


“Muslim demographics” propaganda video exposed

Today a friend forwarded me an email with a link to a Youtube video on “Muslim demographics” that appears to be viral at the moment, with over 5 million views so far:

Islam will overwhelm Christendom unless Christians recognize the demographic realities, begin reproducing again, and share the gospel with Muslims.

It’s a cleverly made piece of propaganda that paints a picture of a Europe in which Muslims become the majority of the population by or before 2050. However it did not clearly reference its sources, which (if you notice them at all) appear too small to be readable. It’s not clear who produced this video either.

Why do I call it propaganda? Because whoever made it, they did play fast and loose with the truth – Goebbels would have been proud of them. I will give you just a few examples.

They claimed that the average fertility of Muslim women in France was 8.1 children per woman, which would be about 4 times the French average. The fact is that most Muslims in France originated from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia or Turkey, countries whose average fertility rates are much lower than claimed for the Muslim immigrants.

Morocco 2.57
Algeria 1.82
Tunisia 1.73
Turkey 1.87

That doesn’t really make sense. It seems likely that fertility amongst immigrants would fall somewhere in between rates in their country of origin and of their new chosen home, but not some four times higher than either of them, as the makers of this propaganda video would have us believe.

Birth rates have been falling with rising living standards and education levels – not only in Europe, North America and Japan but also in Latin America, South Asia, East Asia, most of the Middle East and just about anywhere else. It’s a global trend: These days even the Islamic Republic of Iran, not exactly a bastion of Western liberalism, has a lower fertility rate than France. In fact sub-Saharan Africa is the only region worldwide that has bucked the trend, where fertility rates have remained consistently high. A large percentage of future Christian and Muslim worldwide population growth will come from that continent.

Another example is false claim in the video that Muslims make up 25% of the population of Belgium, when in fact they only reach that proportion in the city of Brussels, while they constitute a mere 4.0% of the population of Wallonia and 3.9% of the population of Flanders, the two major regions of the country. The national average is 6% – only one quarter of what the video claims. The video authors are off in a similar way in a similar claim about the Netherlands.

These and numerous other mistakes and inconsistencies are exposed and thoroughly refuted in an excellent post on the Tiny Frog blog. If anyone sends you a link to the “Muslim demographics” video, send them back a link to the facts!

Demographics and Politics

With falling birth rates in many developed countries and rising immigration that partly compensates for this, many people are afraid of their countries gradually losing their cultural identity. This fear is largely misplaced. When Polish workers came to the Ruhr area of Prussia in large numbers to work in coal mines in the 19th century, there were the same fears, but now their descendants are as German as anyone else and only the numerous Polish surnames in the phone books or local football (soccer) teams remind of the immigration. Likewise, Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Mexico faced a lot of hostility in the US around the turn of the 19th/20th century, but they integrated like Protestant immigrants before them and their descendants speak English like other Americans. With immigration patterns such as in Europe and the US, immigrant populations will largely assimilate within two or three generations, even if they may retain some elements of their parents’ and grandparents’ culture.

Unfortunately most people who have watched this propaganda video will not see the real facts any time soon. There is a good chance this video will have had an effect on them, sowing seeds of fear and mistrust that others will seek to exploit for political gains. Nazi chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ would have approved: “That propaganda is good which leads to success, and that is bad which fails to achieve the desired result,” he wrote. “It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent, its task is to lead to success.” (see Joachim Fest, The Face of the Third Reich).

Whoever made this video does not care about the real numbers or facts, or they would not consistently get their facts wrong by such wide margins. What they are trying to do is to stoke fear. As one person wrote who forwarded the link to my friend: “WATCH THIS AND BE AFRAID – VERY AFRAID.” People who are afraid are easier to manipulate: They will want to give power to whoever is promising to protect them from the perceived danger. In 1933 Hitler assumed total power in Germany after scaring the country of a supposedly imminent communist coup (by having his troopers secretly set fire to the Reichstag). Look what George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Co. managed to get away with when Americans got really frightened after 9/11! Fear is a powerful weapon at the hands of those unscrupulous enough to exploit it.

Mugabe wins battle, loses war in sham election

When Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe unleashed a wave of terror on his fellow Zimbabweans after his ZANU-PF party was soundly defeated in the March 29 elections and he himself gained fewer votes than opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, he was calculating that he could still steal another election and add another five years to his 28 years in power.

Mr Tsvangirai’s recent withdrawal from the run-off election to save the lives of his supporters, followed by his advice to MDC supporters to even vote for Mugabe if necessary to avoid paying with their lives for an honest vote, all but ensures that Mugabe will be soon be proclaimed the winner by his own officials. However, it will be a Pyrrhic victory, because the means by which it will have been achieved will have been so extreme that Mugabe has destroyed all chances of being able to claim legitimacy for his government.

For a start, according to the Zimbabwean election law, since officially neither of the candidates gained 50% or more of the votes, a run-off had to be held within 21 days . That did not happen. It took an astounding 5 weeks for the results to even be announced, raising suspicions of last minute ballot-stuffing to push Tsvangirai’s result under the 50% margin. When the government then announced the run-off for June 27, almost another two months later, it clearly violated that law, under which, if no run-off takes place within three weeks, the highest placed candidate from the first election automatically is the winner (see two papers on the website of the South Africa Litigation Centre for details).

Legally, Morgan Tsvangirai, who according to the official count got 47.8% of the vote compared to Mugabe’s 43.2%, became the elected president of Zimbabwe in April, when the 21 days expired without a re-run.

Mugabe used the three months between the two elections for a war on anyone opposed to his rule. Whole villages and neighbourhoods were forcibly marched to public assemblies where known or suspected MDC-supporters were viciously tortured and mutilated in front of the stunned crowds. Some 200,000 Zimbabweans are reported to having fled their homes to escape torture or death.

One of the most recent victims of the terror campaign was the wife of the newly elected mayor of the capital of Harare, who was kidnapped by ZANU-PF supporters along with her four year old son. Her battered dead body was found later, so badly disfigured that her family found it hard to identify her.

The world has finally taken notice of what’s going on. Presidents and well known voices from Africa, ranging from Kenyan Prime Minister, Raila Odinga to ANC leader Jacob Zuma have condemned Mugabe’s campaign of terror in no uncertain terms. An open letter signed by dozens of former heads of states in Africa, including several former close allies of Mugabe, called for an end to the violence.

Mugabe will survive this sham election only as a pariah, unwelcome anywhere in Africa or most of the rest of the world (North Korea might still support him, given that he relied on North Korean instructors for his infamous Fifth Brigade during atrocities in the 1980s). It looks like African leaders have been shocked into breaking any remaining political ties.

One notable exception is still South African president Thabo Mbeki, who finds himself increasingly isolated in his own party for it.

Zimbabwe is at a breaking point. Literally anything could happen now. It is not clear how a government of national unity can come about. Will it take a military intervention by fellow AU or SADC members to convince the hardliners around Mugabe, the JOC, that there is no way for them to hang on to power? There are moderate elements in ZANU-PF who would negotiate a change of power, but they don’t control the army and the thugs. Will it come to a Rwanda-style genocide before regime change?

The person, next to Mugabe himself, who carries the biggest responsibility for the further hellish chaos that Zimbabwe could descend into is Thabo Mbeki. If he recognizes Morgan Tsvangirai’s right to form a new unity government to organise a transfer of power in Zimbabwe, based on the outcome of the legitimate election results in March, there is no way Mugabe could hang on much longer.

Since the 1950 the ANC had struggled against racist violence for the principle of One Man, One Vote. This elementary right has now been stolen from Zimbabweans by Mugabe, who says “only God” could remove him from power. It reminds me of Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith, who stubbornly said that “not in a thousand years” did he believe in majority rule in Zimbabwe. Mugabe has become what he hated most, and worse.

In the 1970s, when the illegitimate minority government of then Rhodesia was fighting a war to maintain its racist system, it relied primarily on South African support. The sudden withdrawal of South African police troops from “Rhodesia” and later a cutback in fuel supplies was the beginning of the end for the white regime. Mugabe can not go it alone any more than Smith could before him. If anything, Zimbabwe is in a much weaker situation economically than Rhodesia was then.

I am hoping that the second liberation of Zimbabwe will become a watershed event for democracy and human rights in Africa, a continent that has suffered so much already.

Zimbabwe: Mugabe trying to torture his way to victory

A recently released report by Human Rights Watch about the situation in Zimbabwe before the second round of a presidential election makes for grim reading. The eyewitness reports of brutal beatings, torture and mutilations of suspected supporters of the oppositional Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) show in sickening detail how president Robert Mugabe is unleashing a campaign of terror on his own people to scare them into re-electing him, especially in rural areas that used to be bastions of support for the ruling ZANU-PF party.

28 years after Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain under black majority rule, Mugabe has squandered the respect and admiration that he had earned as a fighter against Apartheid during the 1960s and 70s. Now he is only fighting to preserve power and privileges for himself and his cronies in the army and police. His wife is known as “Gucci Grace” or the “First Shopper”. Many farms taken from commercial farmers were distributed to senior members of ZANU-PF.

It all could have been so different. At Independence, Zimbabwe had one of the best infrastructures in the region and had a well-developed agricultural and mining industry. There was racial reconciliation and many whites stayed on after Apartheid ended. Now one quarter of the population has fled abroad (mostly to South Africa), inflation is sky-high and people are starving.

Already a few years after Independence a brutal counter-insurrection campaign in the southern region of Matabeleland known as Gukurahundi was a first ominous sign how unscrupulous Mugabe could act if he saw a challenge to his power. At least ten thousand people were killed when former members of the ZIPRA guerilla force of rival nationalist party ZAPU and other members of the southern Ndebele tribe were hunted down by the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the Zimbabwe Army, given carte blanche to violate human rights on a massive scale with impunity. The campaign ended in 1987, when ZAPU leader Joshua Nkomo agreed to his party effectively being swallowed up by ZANU.

What I find most disheartening about the situation in Southern Africa is the hands-off attitude of fellow African leaders such as South African president Thabo Mbeki. When black democracy activists were persecuted by the white Apartheid regime in South Africa, all of Africa provided support to their brothers and sisters in need, often at great cost to themselves (such as in Angola and Mozambique, where South Africa supported rebel groups to destabilize these countries). Now that Africans are being tortured, beaten and killed by fellow Africans, many of these African leaders are turning a blind eye.

The victims of torture and violence at the hand of Mugabe’s gangs of thugs deserve solidarity every bit as much as the victims of the South African police and army did before Liberation. By betraying powerless Zimbabwean victims, the current leadership in South Africa and other nations in the region is betraying the ideals of the generations who fought and eventually brought down Apartheid.

What you can do: Find the address of the embassy of the Republic of South Africa in your country and write a letter or a fax to the Ambassador to urge President Thabo Mbeki to use his influence with the government of Zimbabwe to get them to halt the violence now!

Further reading:

An Obama-Clinton ticket would be a bad idea

For months there has been talk about an Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama “dream ticket” (in the words of its proponents), that supposedly would draw in strong support from all the electoral groups that supported either Democratic candidate. It now looks unlikely to happen, for a number of good reasons.

As former President Jimmy Carter points out, it would be more likely to combine the perceived weaknesses of both candidates than their strengths:

“That would just accumulate the negative aspects of both candidates,” Carter told the Guardian, saying that both candidates’ vulnerabilities could overshadow that the ticket if the two team up together.

“If you take that 50 percent who just don’t want to vote for Clinton and add it to whatever element there might be who don’t think Obama is white enough or old enough or experienced enough or because he’s got a middle name that sounds Arab, you could have the worst of both worlds,” he said.

In late 2007 Hillary Clinton was widely seen as by far the most likely choice of the Democrats for the presidential election. Then came the primaries and she stumbled. Clinton would have us believe that she was ready for the highest office in the US “from day one”, but she wasn’t ready when Super Tuesday didn’t deliver a knockout blow to Obama as she had expected.

Despite being accused of lacking in political experience, Obama had managed to recruit and build an effective organisation that delivered a string of 11 victories in a row and he out-fundraised Clinton.

After she hit her drought, Clinton kept reinventing herself until she finally managed to find an image that resonated with enough voters. Meanwhile Obama remained himself.

What’s more, he showed class and character thoughout those months, from when he addressed racial issues after the Pastor Jeremiah Wright controversy to partially accomodating Clinton in her unreasonable demands about the disputed primaries in Florida and Michigan. I shook my head in disbelief when Clinton claimed all the Michigan votes for herself, even though voters in Michigan had not even been able to vote for Obama, as he had not been on the ballot, following rules agreed upon by all candidates beforehand.

She was fighting to win at all costs, prepared to take no prisoners. Even when Obama had reached the majority of pledged delegates and super delegates, she did not have the grace to concede his victory and join hands for November. She had to be pushed by senior party leaders.

If there is one thing Barack Obama is good at, it is listening to advice from experienced people. I trust he will listen to those who understand it’s time to turn a new page for a Democratic party no longer under the spell of the Clintons and their political and personal baggage.


Yasukuni school trips OK: Japanese government

When Japanese suicide pilots (known as kamikaze in Western countries or tokkōtai in Japanese) bid farewell to their comrades before their final missions, they would say: “See you at Yasukuni!”

A bronze statue of a tokkōtai pilot at Yasukuni commemorates the numerous young men who died this way during the final months of the already lost war.

For close to 140 years, Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo has been a place where the souls of dead soldiers were venerated. Neither a secular war memorial like numerous tombs of the unknown soldier or national cemeteries, nor a Shinto shrine like any other, it is a place of hero worship and historical white-wash. A museum on the shrine grounds promotes a revisionist version of history, claiming that Japan was not an aggressor but was fighting in self-defence and to liberate Asia from Western colonialism. In the parallel universe of that museum, the rape of Nanjing in China that cost 100,000-300,000 lives never happened. The more than 2.4 million souls whose names on the shrine’s books also include the names of 14 class A war criminals sentenced to death in the Tokyo trials after World War 2. These criminals were originally excluded, but then enshrined decades later. It was at that point that Emperor Hirohito (referred to as “the late Emperor Showa” by the Japanese) stopped visiting the shrine. His son, the present emperor has not visited it either.

In 1945 the Occupation administration issued a ban against the Japanese government forcing citizens to attend state -sponsored Shinto rituals and against promoting militarism. Four years later the Japanese government then issued a ban against school excursions by public schools to Yasukuni and other Shinto shrines for the purpose of worship.

On May 23, 2008 the Japanese government declared this ban null and void, explaining that the original occupation ban had expired when Japan regained its sovereignty in the 1952 San Francisco peace treaty and that it was now OK for schools to organize trips to Yasukuni.

In other words, because an American prohibition against violating the separation of church and state and against militaristic propaganda was no longer in force, both were now apparently acceptable as far as the Japanese government was concerned.

Iraq, five years later

On occasion of some spring cleaning in my office I stumbled across an old copy of The Economist (April 5-11, 2003) published as the US forces were marching on Bagdad during the invasion that eventually swept Saddam Hussein from power.

I was opposed to that war at the time (it’s not hindsight, you can ask my wife!) and still am, but with the benefit of five years of experience of how things actually turned out it is interesting what the editors had to say then. I still respect the Economist as (overall) a relatively unbiased source of information though I’m no longer a subscriber.

The defect of these comparisons [with Vietnam and Palestine] is that Iraq is nothing like Vietnam, not much like Palestine or Afghanistan, and, on present evidence, no quagmire. (…) In Vietnam the Americans fought for ten years. The Soviet army spent ten years in Afghanistan. This war entered its third week with the Americans battering through Iraq’s Republican Guard divisions to the gates of Bagdad. At this rate, it will be a surprise if the Americans have to fight for ten weeks, let alone ten years. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has lasted for 36 years. If America has its way, its occupation of Iraq is more likely to last for fewer than 36 months. And there is no reason why America should not have its way: unlike Israel and the Palestinians, America and Iraq have no territorial quarrel. America’s stated aim is to remove the regime and its mass-killing weapons, allow the Iraqis to replace their dictatorship with a representative government, and then depart.

Well, those 36 months (3 years) already expired more than two years ago and no departure is in sight yet. Even someone who would (if elected to the highest office in the country) withdraw the troops after roughly twice that time has to face accusations of wanting to “cut and run”, while John McCain is talking about staying in Iraq for a hundred years.

Not only the time scales have shifted: Before President Bush decided to invade Iraq, his country was the only remaining superpower, having lost the Vietnam war but won the cold war. Following September 11 his people and country had an enormous amount of good will on its side from people and governments all over the world. Now the country is bleeding hundreds of billions of tax dollars and hundreds of lives every year in an undeclared war it can’t win. The Iraq war is deeply unpopular at home and abroad, not to speak of Iraq, where tens of thousands have died in the resulting civil war and “ethnic cleansing”.

The biggest winner of the US effort in Iraq so far has been the unfriendly regime in next door Iran, which saw one of its biggest enemies destroyed at the hands of the US, allowing its closest friends and allies to take over in Iraq.

I am looking forward to a new leadership in the White House that will have the courage to face reality: When you’ve taken a wrong turn you don’t then “stay the course”, especially when you’re heading into a dead end.

Recommended reading:

Japanese petrol (gasoline) prices to fall 25c per litre

Following political gridlock in the Japanese parliament, a “temporary” tax on petrol (gasoline) that has been in force for three decades after being renewed every couple of years is set to expire on 01 April 2008 (to readers outside of Japan: No, this is not an April Fool’s joke). As a result prices of petrol are set to fall by 25 yen per litre (about US$0.95 per gallon, EUR 0.16 per litre).

I’m utterly unimpressed by how both major Japanese parties have handled this conflict.

Fuel taxes in Japan consist of the basic fuel tax and a “temporary” but de-facto permanent surcharge. The ruling conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) wanted to hold on to the surcharge, as well as to a peculiar rule that fuel taxes must only be used for road construction and repair. This road-use-only restriction was defended by the so-called “road tribe”, an informal group of politicians with cozy ties to construction companies which in turn support their election campaigns.

The opposition Democratic Party, which controls the less powerful Upper House of parliament, called for dissolving the fuel – road construction link, as well as abolishing the surcharge altogether and only keeping the basic fuel tax, as it was until the 1970s.

The two did not compromise in time before the set expiration date and so prices will fall from tomorrow. Most likely the Lower House, which is controlled by the LDP-led coalition, will override the Upper House about one month later and reimpose the higher tax rate. Meanwhile Prime Minister Fukuda offered to remove the road construction link from April 2009 in order to get the opposition to agree to an extension of the surcharge.

While motorists will welcome cheaper fuel, petrol stations are likely to collectively lose about US$200 million over night, as they hold stocks of some 800 million litres of petrol in their underground tanks on which the tax has already been paid and which will not be refunded to them. Motorists are likely to give their business to whatever petrol station that starts selling at the new low prices first, making it near impossible for other stations to pass on to the consumer the taxes these stations have already paid on stocks delivered before April.

To me it makes no sense to maintain the outdated restriction on how fuel taxes can be used, which serves primarily the interests of construction companies, not the general public. Japan as an aging society with a declining population will need more and more cash for supporting elderly people and their health care, not more and more roads. Why can’t taxes be used where they are needed the most? This pork barrel restriction should have been abandoned a long time ago!

On the other hand it would be irresponsible to cut fuel taxes while the government is running a huge budget deficit. It would just mean more red ink, piling up higher debts to be repaid by our children and grandchildren. Also, cheaper fuel today will do little to encourage consumers to switch to more economical cars or public transport and to cut their output of greenhouse gases. Japan is already way behind on its efforts to meet its obligations under the Kyoto climate treaty.

It would make more sense to maintain and even raise fuel taxes and use the revenue to subsidise CO2 conservation measures, from better home insulation to solar collectors for warm water and subsidies for hybrid cars. Thirty years from now the world will live on maybe half the crude oil output per year as today, shared amongst more consumers. Whatever country comes up with intelligent solutions for living with scarce and expensive oil will do best in the 21st century. Trying to sneak back into a “golden age” of cheap fuel is not the way to succeed.