Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Don't buy a goat this Christmas

What overgrazing does: the Simien Mountains, northern Ethiopia

'Buy a goat and provide improved nutrition and income generation for a family in Niger or Malawi' - UNICEF. 'Goats: packed full of nourishing delicious milk' - Action Aid. 'These loveable animals are not only an essential source of nutritious milk for an African family, but thanks to a revolving goat project families can breed them to generate income to pay for their child's education - and release themselves from poverty forever' - Practical Action. Goats were Oxfam's biggest seller last year. Everyone wants you to buy a goat this Christmas.

Sounds great doesn't it? Work off your Christmas guilt and hangover by buying a goat for a poor family in Africa or the Middle East. A goat which reproduces, creating yet more goats. But it's a mad idea.

Earlier this year I went to Ethiopia. I was astonished one day to see a goat that had managed to climb a tree, which already looked like wicker. It was eating the last green shoots. Goats eat everything. They turn pasture into desert. In the Simien Mountains, where I was, the earth is like brown talcum powder which blows away when you tread on it. Oxfam, in its defence, says that it 'only provides livestock to communities where livestock keeping is an essential or traditional way of life, and appropriate to the local environment.' But 'It's Traditional' is second-rate thinking. Traditions die out when the people who follow them die out: you only have to look at Easter Island for proof of that, where the people cut down the trees to make logs to roll the statues into place. Charities don't exist to support tradition, because tradition isn't always best. They are there to change and improve.

The charities offer other gifts. Sanitation is still the greatest problem in the third world, though pit lavatories are not fluffy or 'loveable' (a laughable idea for anyone who has watched an Arab thwacking a donkey with a stick). Just please don't buy a goat.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Why are we in Mesopotamia?

Listening to the British Defence Secretary Des Browne's comment today that "I can tell you that by the end of next year I expect numbers of British forces in Iraq to be significantly lower by a matter of thousands", reminded me of the words of an earlier politician. He wrote on 1st January 1921 how "I feel some misgivings about the political consequence to myself of taking on my shoulders the burden and the odium of the Mesopotamia entanglement". If you haven't already guessed, or recognised the quote, it was the highly ambitious Winston Churchill. He had just been appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies, with responsibility for the Middle East. Worried his reputation might be irrevocably damaged by the problems he had been asked to deal with, he would spend the next three months desperately searching for a way to cut Britain's military commitment in Iraq. It looks like Des Browne is doing much the same thing - spurred, I suspect, by the chastening mid-term election results in the United States.

In 1921 Britain ran Mesopotamia, as it then was, as a result of its determination to protect its oil fields in southern Persia during the First World War. In a classic example of mission creep, this defence had ended with the British capturing Baghdad in 1917. As more oil was discovered and its importance in powering the Royal Navy was recognised, they were reluctant to give up their new possession. But the post-war administration of the country, which largely excluded local Arabs, was inept. "I regard the situation in Mesopotamia as disquieting, and if we do not mend our ways, will expect revolt there about March next", TE Lawrence wrote in September 1919. Eight weeks later than he predicted, in May 1920 violence erupted in Iraq. Lawrence would become perhaps the most vocal critic of the government in the months that followed, arguing that Britain should stand back and allow the Arabs to run the country for themselves. "What is required", he wrote in an article in the Observer, "is a tearing up of what we have done, and beginning again on advisory lines." His position was a popular one. A further, famous article he wrote for the Sunday Times was supported by a leader in the paper which asked: "Why are we in Mesopotamia? Uninformative statements which have been issued by the Government convey the impression that officialdom is bewildered and anxious rather to conceal its blunders than to mend them. But they can be concealed no longer…"

"We have not got a single friend in the press upon the subject", Churchill wrote about the crisis in Iraq in 1920. He regretted “pouring armies and treasure into these thankless deserts”. When he was then given the task of tearing up past policy, it was a unpalatable job which has a familiar ring today.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Syria's alliance with Iran

Just how solid is Syria’s alliance with Iran – the partnership that Britain and the United States are now seemingly trying to break up? In my view, not very.

What unites Syria with Iran is its concern about the threat posed by their common neighbour, Iraq, the country carved from the Ottoman Empire by Winston Churchill and TE Lawrence in 1921. Iraq was made the shape it is to connect the northern oil fields around Mosul with the Gulf port of Basra in the south, and to stop the French (who then ran Syria) from meddling in the Arabian peninsula: hence Iraq's western border with Jordan ensures that Syria and Saudi Arabia do not touch. But, thus defined, Iraq combined a highly combustible mix of religious and ethnic groups which has proved a nightmare for its rulers ever since. The first, the British-backed King Feisal, complained twelve years after he was crowned that ‘There is still – and I say this with a heart of sorrow – no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever.’

Worried about relying on Iraq for oil, in 1982 Syria negotiated an oil-for-phosphates deal with Iran and then, with its energy supplies assured, cut its ties with Iraq. But Syria and Iran are very different: Syria is a secular dictatorship in which religious fundamentalism has been brutally crushed; Iran a theocracy with ambitions to reclaim a broad swathe of the Middle East, including parts of Iraq and Afghanistan, which it sees as historically Iranian. The population of Syria is largely Sunni, though significant to understanding the regime’s commitment to religious tolerance is the fact that the President, Bashar Assad, comes from the tiny Alawite minority. The people of Iran on the other hand, are mainly Shia. Each country has secretly backed its co-religionists in Iraq, so that Sunni and Shia are now engaged in a ferocious civil war against each other. It is an odd way for two supposed allies to behave.

Iran’s motives for supporting the Iraqi Shias were probably territorial: it would like to extend Iran westwards to the bank of the river Tigris. Syria’s motivation in backing the Sunnis was rather different. Thrown in with Iran and North Korea as an associate member of the 'Axis of Evil' from mid-2002, and fearing it might be next on the United States’ list of targets, Syria armed the Sunnis in Iraq to bog the American invasion down. To understand the Syrians' concerns, it is worth recalling Lawrence's opinion that Syria is 'a country peculiarly and historically indefensible against attack from the east'.

Viewed cold-heartedly, the Syrian policy has been a short-term success. More coalition troops have died in Iraq's western Anbar province, which borders Syria, than in any other part of Iraq and the Americans’ enthusiasm to take on Syria next has now evaporated. But when the coalition leaves, Syria's proxy war becomes a highly dangerous policy, for the Syrian border with Iraq is very porous and the violence in Baghdad is closer than Damascus would like. And the sectarian violence that will probably engulf Iraq following a US withdrawal will pit Syria directly against its supposed ally, Iran. Meanwhile, Iran's claim that it will use its nuclear weapons against Israel, which would surely leave Jerusalem, a holy Muslim city, uninhabitable sits oddly with its attempt to orchestrate anti-western opinion throughout the mostly Sunni Islamic world.
It is the realisation that a precipitate American and British withdrawal from Iraq would leave them in a confrontation with the Iranians that is encouraging the Syrians to reconsider their support for the insurgents. This helps explain the Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem’s visit to Baghdad last week, and the reopening of diplomatic ties between the two countries for the first time since 1982. While he was in Baghdad, Moualem signed an agreement agreeing that American troops should remain in Iraq. And that shows just how vulnerable the Syrian position is.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Wild pigs

It's frequently said about Spain - where I've just spent a few days - that it is still possible to see the Moorish legacy on the country, more than five hundred years after the Muslim King of Granada finally surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella on 2 January 1492, completing the reconquista. That influence is obvious in the architecture and, as I discovered while perusing a menu, in the language of the food.

As anyone who has visited will know, the Spanish are mad about ham. There are dozens of types: cured for different lengths of time, with different smoke, and so on. But what caught my eye was the Spanish word for wild pig, which is 'Jabali'. It is a word which rang a bell from my travels in the Middle East on the trail of TE Lawrence, for Jabal in Arabic means mountain. Devout Muslims do not eat ham today: but I wonder whether that was always the case in Spain?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Al Jazeera goes live in English

The skyline of the old city of Sanaa, Yemen

The infamous Arabic satellite news channel, Al Jazeera, launched its English language service today to an estimated 80 million homes around the world. Its aim, its director-general says, is to try to reverse the flow of information which currently runs from north to south. It will be interesting to see what effect it has on other broadcasters’ coverage of international news.

Like the BBC, Al Jazeera – ‘The Island’ in Arabic – has made a virtue of its impartiality. As anyone who has visited the Arab world will know, the enormous, rusty satellite dishes on almost every roof testify to a yearning everywhere for independent news which is not satisfied by the turgid daily gobbets from government news outlets. See this scintillating item from the official Syrian news agency, SANA, today if you remain to be convinced.

As the BBC cuts back its short wave radio World Service – and weirdly hopes that its audience around the world can tune in via the internet – there may well be space for Al Jazeera. But whether it can cover the world as it claims it wants to “from the south”, will all boil down to budget. I saw Jon Snow, the journalist and Channel 4 News anchor, speak last year on just this subject, and he reminded the audience that it is far cheaper to broadcast live from the USA than it is to commission a report from Darfur, say, in western Sudan, where there is a genocide going largely unreported. The worst example of the consequences of this, the one that made my blood boil, was the way in which the BBC devoted an entire half-hour evening news bulletin to the verdicts in the Michael Jackson trial in June last year.

Perhaps Al Jazeera will force the BBC to follow more expensive foreign stories. I hope so. But in these cash-strapped times, the frequently trivial rubbish breaking in the developed world looks likely to continue to trump those genuine news stories emerging from the more dangerous and remote elsewhere.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The struggle over Siachen

Mules en route to supply the Pakistani front line on Siachen

India and Pakistan are due to meet for talks on Kashmir this week, and it's being reported that India has ruled out making any concessions on the Siachen glacier, the highest battlefield in the world. It can afford to because, setting aside the growing pressure on the Pakistanis from elsewhere, the local situation on the glacier definitely favours the Indians.
The grain of the mountains in Kashmir (the valleys run from south-east to north-west) means that it is easier for the Indians to supply their forces than it is for the Pakistanis to reach theirs. But since Kashmir is so central to the Pakistanis' invented notion of themselves, the lengths to which they go to maintain their front line on the glacier have to be seen to be believed. Their main supply line runs at first up the route to K2 base camp, and mule trains carrying artillery shells are a frequent sight for climbers on the path. It is rather disconcerting lying in a tent at night listening to the jingle of bells as the mules pick their way past with their cargoes of high explosive.
Meanwhile, because of the conflict in this astonishingly beautiful part of the world, the local people suffer. While a town like Leh in Indian-occupied Kashmir is well connected to the outside world and relatively prosperous, the remote settlements in Pakistani-occupied Baltistan to the north-west are more cut off today than at any time in the past. The difference in labour costs each side of the Line of Control reveals the consequences. £1,500 buys the services of three men and five horses for a fortnight in Indian Ladakh; but the same sum employs perhaps twenty men for the same period in Pakistani Baltistan. Work is so scarce there (partly because of the slump in tourism since 9/11) that there is fierce competition among the local villagers for work as porters.
Poverty was the reason why last year's earthquake had such a disproportionately worse effect in Pakistani Kashmir. Poorly constructed buildings folded and survivors of the earthquake are still living in tents, twelve months later. Jihadis from the notorious training camps in the region were frequently first to the scene to help. If the Pakistanis were half as good at looking after the people of Kashmir as they are at maintaining their precarious frontline to the north, the victims of this natural tragedy might be doing better.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Saddam the martyr?

I've spent the last few days pondering what impact hanging Saddam Hussein will have. It looks highly unlikely to curb the mounting violence in Iraq. The authorities there (if such a word applies amid such anarchy) feared his death sentence would have the opposite effect. The Shia, for whom Iraqi television is evidently much too dull, want the execution broadcast live. Will it, as some worry, create a martyr? I suspect not, though it is posterity, rather than the executioner, that determines martyrdom.

The most famous Arab martyrs are commemorated in the present names of two public squares in Beirut and Damascus. In 1916 they were known, respectively, as the Burj and the Marjeh. Today, for the events of 6 May that year, both are known as Martyrs' Square. The men hanged there in public early on that date had been sentenced to death for treason against the ruling Ottoman regime. Their crime was to have asked the French for assistance with their cause, and it was the letters they naively sent the French consul which were found when he abandoned his office in 1914 that condemned them. They represented an increasingly self-confident Arab intelligentsia: besides an army officer, a newspaper proprietor, magistrate, barrister, and several local politicians were executed. They were successful people, frustrated by the Arabs' second class status within the Ottoman Empire at that time. One of them died calling on 'the civilised nations of the world' to help them achieve 'our independence and freedom'.

Men less like Saddam you would find it hard to find.

Friday, November 03, 2006

2007 poppy harvest may match record

Next year's opium harvest in Afghanistan may match this year's record levels, Associated Press quotes an anonymous US official predicting. This crop this year was an estimated 6,000 tonnes, producing 600 tonnes of heroin. The planting of next year's crop has now begun.

The official directly linked the size of the harvest with Afghan government's loss of control of the southern provinces of the country, where opium poppy is mainly grown. "We've actually lost a lot of governance in a number of districts in Kandahar, Helmand, and Uruzgan, where the government isn't flying the flag," the official said. "You've got Taliban there that are more in control than the government."

When it is harvested next spring, the size of next year's crop compared to this year's will be a clear indicator of whether NATO is succeeding in bringing greater stability to Afghanistan.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Boris recants

You can see a perfect example of the sea-change I wrote about two days ago from the brilliant commentator and Conservative MP Boris Johnson in today's Daily Telegraph. Johnson is the shambolic-looking but razor-brained voice of the Telegraph and I would be willing to bet that more readers buy the paper for his Thursday column than for any other single reason (except, probably, the cartoonist Matt). Here he is today completing a u-turn on Iraq:

"It is now commonplace for people like me, who supported the war, to say that we "did the right thing" but that it had mysteriously "turned out wrong". This is intellectually vacuous. It is like saying British strategy for July 1, 1916 was perfect, but let down by faulty execution. The thing was a disaster from the moment we invaded, and it wasn't poor old Rumsfeld's fault for failing to send in enough troops, or failing to do more "planning" for the post-war. No quantity of troops could have prevented this catastrophe; and the dreadful thing is that I think Saddam knew it."

"As long as we are there [in Iraq], the terrorists know that they can maximise the damage to Bush and Blair by blowing up our troops, and so we incite the very violence we are trying to quell. We need to plan for withdrawal, and we need to understand why, why, why we were so mad as to attack Iraq without working out the consequences."

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The road to Damascus

The souk in Damascus
Reuters last night reported that Tony Blair's foreign policy adviser, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, has met the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a visit to Damascus. In Britain, the Financial Times picks up the story today, saying the meeting was 'the most high-level encounter between the UK government and the Assad regime since the Iraq war in 2003'. Interestingly, while on previous occasions Mr Blair sent Lord Levy, a businessman now at the epicentre of a scandal over political loans, as his envoy to Damascus, this time a heavyweight official made the trip.
That choice rather undermines the British claim that the meeting did not mark a departure, and gives weight to the Syrians' interpretation, that the encounter was 'significant'. The Syrians claim that it proves that the country, which has been ostracised for its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, plays a key role in achieving peace in the Middle East. A greater role for Syria in stabilising Iraq is one of the options reportedly being considered by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in the United States and it is possible that the British government is trying, through offering the prospect of better relations, to weaken Syria's alliance with Iran. The Iranian foreign minister met Assad in Damascus five days ago. The two countries' close relations date back to the 1979 revolution in Iran and Syria backed Iran against Iraq in the 1980s.

The move comes after British MP Richard Spring's prediction in the Guardian last week that Britain would open talks with the Syrian government.