Archive for the ‘reconstruction’ Category

This story; from China is predictably horrible:

Chinese authorities have sentenced two women in their 70s to a year’s “re-education through labour” following their application to hold a protest demonstration during the Beijing games, a relative said yesterday.

Officials said this week they had not approved a single permit for a demonstration, despite designating three parks as protest zones.

The International Olympic Committee’s communications director said she would look at the women’s case, but stressed the games were “not a panacea for all ills”.

Wu Dianyuan, 79, and her neighbour Wang Xiuying, 77, sought to protest about their forced eviction from their homes in 2001. They went to the Beijing Public Security Bureau (PSB) four times this month to request permission to demonstrate in the zones – created for the Olympics to counter criticism about restrictions on political expression in China…

But that isn’t my point. My point is that it’s all oddly familiar. For a start, they have been placed under an “order” which restricts their movements, subjects them to the scrutiny of a neighbourhood committee, and isn’t subject to a court hearing or to an appellant jurisdiction of any kind. Why not? Because, of course, it’s not actually punishment. Only breaking; the order would be a crime, and would result in your being sent to a labour camp.

Yes; they’ve reinvented the ASBO. Meanwhile, 77 applications to demonstrate have been made and absolutely none granted. 74, apparently, were “resolved through consultations”, another two turned down because the form wasn’t properly filled in, and another rejected on the grounds it involved a child. (Won’t somebody think of the children?) And I was fascinated by this quote from Sir Mucho Pomposo Wang Wei of the Organising Committee:

Wang Wei, vice-president of the Beijing organising committee, told reporters they should be “satisfied” with the protest zones. “The idea of demonstration is that you are hoping to resolve issues, not to demonstrate for the sake of demonstrating. We are pleased that issues have been resolved through dialogue and communication – this is how we do it in Chinese culture,” he told a press conference.

He added: “We want everyone to express their opinion. Everyone has the right to speak; this is not the same as demonstrating.

It’s so familiar; the insistence that anyone who disagrees is doing so out of spite, that only acquiescence is “serious” or “helpful”. I’m surprised he didn’t offer them a Big Conversation, but in fact, with the right mistranslation he might have done. Similarly, the re-education through labour order for disturbing the public is just a translator’s caprice away from an anti-social behaviour order.

Perhaps there’s a wider truth here; this sort of events/urban regeneration politics seems to follow the same grammar all over the world. It’s conceived of as a project; which implies there are only participants, or else obstructions. Despite the money and the bulldozers, it respects class boundaries; veering around the villas of the rich. It needs special security arrangements which always turn out to involve some sort of summary justice based on vague and unchallengeable notions of appropriateness, propriety, or order; similarly, these are always temporary but are never revoked. The state authorities and private interests involved are indistinguishable. (Interestingly, the legislative foundation tends to be very hard to get rid of; the Act on the Great Exhibition of 1851 is still in force and still a major headache for anyone planning to build on or near the original site.)

More deeply, it seems to include a sort of quasi-medical view of society, or more specifically of the city. It, and we, need to be made better. Not only the method of this treatment, but the definition of better, is reversed for the doctors; but we are responsible if it doesn’t work, because we didn’t comply sufficiently. The nudgers’ cognitive biases are not examined; it’s our fault if we don’t press the right coloured shape in response. Equally, no-one suggests subjecting the Home Office to compulsory psychotherapy in order to get rid of its hysterical anxiety, but it seems to want to make everyone happy.


I am currently reading Antonio Giustozzi’s Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop – The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan. I’ll review it more fully when I’ve finished reading it – now there’s an idea – but here’s something that stands out for reasons of pure partisan rage. John Reid has been mocked plenty for saying that he thought the 16th Air Assault Brigade would complete its mission in Afghanistan without firing a shot (of course, he didn’t – he said he hoped it would), but I hadn’t fully appreciated the utter blundering stupidity with which he approached starting a war on two fronts.

Like practically everyone, I’d always assumed the eruption of violence starting in June, 2006 was associated with the deployment itself – that the Americans had believed that this ungoverned space was essentially neutral, until the Paras actually located in the middle of it and found it was teeming with the enemy. Giustozzi provides a mass of evidence that in fact, the tempo of Taliban operations had gone off the charts in January, 2006, with a huge surge in attacks on international and Afghan government forces, a wave of school-burning, and an increase in platoon and larger raids on defended targets rather than IEDs, rockets, and bomb outrages. He argues, with considerable strength, that this should be understood as an attempt to launch the third stage of a Maoist revolutionary war, the general offensive that starts a widespread uprising and eventually overwhelms the state.

Put it another way, Reid sent the army straight into the teeth of the Taliban’s Big Push, with an official concept of operations that didn’t mention counter-insurgency or even combat. I think his current obscurity is well earned. In Giustozzi’s terms, interestingly enough, the strategy General Richards adopted was actually not as crazy as it sounded. He argues that the bulk (40-50%) of Taliban forces come from local communities who are in an alliance of convenience with the movement, having been angered by unfavourable turns in tribal politics, the diminishing strength and authority of tribes in general, the behaviour of government forces, an unfulfilled desire for minimal state functions like local policing and arbitration, or some combination of these.

In this view, the spread of government influence into the villages was precisely the worst thing that could happen to the movement; the local elders who treated with the Taliban one day might treat with the government the next. Hence the aggression and tenacity of the assaults on British camps in Sangin and elsewhere – it was necessary to demonstrate that the movement was determined not to be edged out. As Tony Blair might have put it, they decided to pay the blood price in the hope of wearing out the British, provoking intense fighting among the civil population, and preventing the British from installing a rival authority. Giustozzi also suggests the ultimate leadership was being pressed by its Gulf-based moneymen and Pakistani allies to do something dramatic – a feeling yer man well knew.

A contrarian argument might have been that had the Taliban not been fighting so hard besieging Para platoons in their stronghold of northern Helmand, who knows what their general offensive might have achieved with more men and material concentrated on its target of Kandahar? But this is probably silly. It doesn’t take account of the benefit to the movement of having many, many villages chewed up by the fighting, or the unavailability of troops tied down in defending their perimeters, or the fact that while the soldiers were engaged in a succession of vicious mini-sieges out in the north, they were neither conducting anything that could be described as counter-insurgency or reconstruction there, nor were they doing any closer to home where it might have been possible to make a start.

Recall this post from December, 2006? It was about how the Iranian government was actually rebuilding things in Afghanistan; things like electricity supply, fibre-optic interconnection, roads, and maybe even a railway. Not just that, but they were supplying today’s version of Marlboros and jeans; the best Internet connection in town.

The Christian Science Monitor goes to Herat, (hat tip) where the other end of this activity is visible; a thriving private sector. Build the infrastructure and they will come. I’d love to see, by the way, any current figures for how much money, between DFID and the Army, has been a) committed to Afghan aid and b) spent. The figures in December were far from encouraging.

Last weekend, for the first time in years. A couple of things – first of all, they’re knocking down the first attempts at regeneration now, whilst a lot of the empty sites that used to be mills are still empty. The whole 60s grey tickytacky city centre is gone, leaving half a mile of rubble. Oddly, the remaining Victorian buildings seem to reassert themselves in the power vacuum, the sight lines being recreated onto the Wool Exchange and others. The changes to the street plan also have this effect – Market Street, Priestley’s favourite, is a major road again. (Bet it’s shit on a weekday, though.)

How did I not notice how many weird religious entities there are in town before? Not just the Muslims (although I saw tract-pushers in the city centre, something I don’t remember seeing very often before), but the Scientologists and weirdo yank Christian sects. The Abundant Life people have had their supermarket-size hangar for years, but it’s the first time I saw it as a religious building rather than an unusual B&Q.

What does it mean? Yorkshire has a tradition of sects, and I suppose the lag between Bradford and Leeds in the last twenty years doesn’t help. I can’t help seeing it as worrying, though.

OK, so Thomas P.M. Barnett is purring like a kitten at the discovery that his Blueprint for Action has been translated into Turkish. Barnett’s famed prescription, the so-called SysAdmin Force, seems to be vanishing under the far horizon. Check out this NYT report from western Afghanistan. It seems the Iranians are dramatically out-competing NATO & Co in reconstruction in Afghanistan.

What’s more interesting is the how. As well as building roads, they laid a new fibre-optic link across the border into Herat, whose far end will interconnect with the Europe-Asia 1 and 2 cables and the FLAG and SMW3 landings in the UAE. They are also planning to extend the railway from Mashad into Afghanistan – hell, even the British Empire didn’t manage to build a railway in Afghanistan, and that’s saying something. Note, by the way, that quite soon there will be through standard-gauge track from anywhere in Europe, and onward towards China not long after that.

Iranian officials said they had focused on roads and power as a quick way to strengthen Afghanistan’s economy. A major project has involved upgrading roads linking Afghanistan with the Iranian port of Chabahar, on the Gulf of Oman.

In many ways, Muhammad Reza Dabbaghi embodies Iran’s new approach in Afghanistan. Mr. Dabbaghi, a 46-year-old engineer, is the top executive here for the Iranian company that built the new 70-mile highway linking western Afghanistan to Iran two years ago, is paving much of the northwestern city of Herat and hopes to build the new railway, all with Iranian government financing.

Can anyone provide an economic and technical rationale for the Western reconstruction effort that succinct and credible? Meanwhile, in Kabul, some ugly signs:

Last year, the Iranian Embassy opened the Iranian Corner, a room in Kabul University’s main library filled with computers, books and magazines from Iran, promoting Iran’s ancient culture and modern achievements. Librarians say it is more popular than the adjoining American Corner, sponsored by the United States Embassy, primarily because it has a better Internet connection. Unlike in Iran, where the government blocks thousands of Web sites, the Iranian Corner offers open Internet access.

Consider that for a moment. We’re being beaten for openness and connectivity by the Iranians. Wi-Fi: it’s the Marlboros of today, if that isn’t too Friedmanesque. And we are still offering outreach projects, speeches on the radio (to quote Carlo Levi), and the occasional AC-130 strike-in-error. When was the last time you heard of an Iranian F14 accidentally bombing an Afghan wedding?

When the Taliban were ousted in 2001, Iran promised to help stabilize Afghanistan. In Germany that December, it was Iranian diplomats who stepped in to save foundering talks to form a new Afghan government, persuading the Northern Alliance to accept the agreement. Soon after, Iran pledged $560 million in aid and loans to Afghanistan over five years, a “startling” amount for a nonindustrialized nation, according to James Dobbins, the senior American envoy to Afghanistan at the time.

A week later, President Bush situated Iran on the “axis of evil.” But even as they assailed that characterization, Mr. Dobbins said, Iranian officials privately offered to train Afghan soldiers. The Bush administration rejected the offer.

Elsewhere in the story, it seems the Iranians have got rid of $230 million of that budget already. When the British Army headed for Helmand this year, there was talk of a £50 million aid budget in its baggage train, or $97 million, almost twice as much as the apparent Iranian annual total. At the last count, I’m not aware that any significant capital amount had been spent. Certainly DFID hasn’t bought 40 per cent of the Iranian effort.

James Glanz of the NYT reports at great length on the electrical siege of Baghdad, with detail, network maps, and more. Great.

Obviously, this being a blog, the primary meaning of this is an excuse to moan about the press. Why didn’t Glanz (or anyone else at the NYT) report on this back in 2004, say? It was a commonplace as early as the summer of 2003 that electricity production was a crucial indicator, that pylons were being destroyed and wire dragged away to sell. John Robb was writing about it then. So was this, ah, blog.

Did I say I loved the FT? Check out this story (subreq) on Gazprom, and especially the Robbtastic pipeline map (direct link (swf).)

James Glanz of the NYT reports at great length on the electrical siege of Baghdad, with detail, network maps, and more. Great.

Obviously, this being a blog, the primary meaning of this is an excuse to moan about the press. Why didn’t Glanz (or anyone else at the NYT) report on this back in 2004, say? It was a commonplace as early as the summer of 2003 that electricity production was a crucial indicator, that pylons were being destroyed and wire dragged away to sell. John Robb was writing about it then. So was this, ah, blog.

Did I say I loved the FT? Check out this story (subreq) on Gazprom, and especially the Robbtastic pipeline map (direct link (swf).)

That leaked Rumsfeld memo. What strikes me is that it’s incredibly poor in quality. Rumsfeld was clearly…well…labouring under delusions of adequacy when he wrote this.

Consider the “options”. “Significantly increase the number of US trainers and transfer more equipment to Iraqi security forces,” “Reduce quickly the number of US bases, currently 55, to five by July 2007”, “Position substantial US forces near the Iranian and Syrian borders to reduce infiltration and Iran’s influence”, “Withdraw US forces from vulnerable positions, such as patrols, and use them as a quick reaction force to help Iraqi security forces when needed”, “Reconstruction efforts should be in those parts of Iraq that are behaving and no more reconstruction assistance should be given in areas where there is violence”, and “Provide money to key political leaders (as Saddam Hussein did), to get them to help us get through this difficult period.”

Well, not only is none of this very inspiring, but most of it is mutually incompatible. How the hell do you reduce the number of bases whilst increaing the numbers of advisors with the Iraqi forces? They are both good ideas in themselves, but more advisers means lots of little camps with US officers and NGOs in. Reducing the number of bases to five fortified desert superbases has been official policy since June/July 2003, so must anyway be considered pure ponyism.

Further, how are the substantial US forces meant to be positioned near the borders and be withdrawn to five big bases at the same time? At best, this would mean big bases with the field forces out on the borders, hence lots of road convoys between the two. Which means that US forces will have to get out and patrol the roads to keep them open. And how will these forces on the borders secure them without either going out on patrol, or else placing lots of small observation posts along them?

Not doing reconstruction in places where there is violence is, well, interesting. It is probably the truth – where there is violence, the contractors won’t go. And anyway, one doesn’t try to persuade one’s allies. Finally, showering cash on Iraq has been tried continuously since the 9th of April, 2003, and seems to have resulted in the biggest theft in history.

Donald Rumsfeld was actually stupider than I thought.

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know most of the stuff in this Washington Post story, but it’s good to have it all in a handy quick-reference guide.