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September 17, 2009
Chinese diplomats promote ‘harmonious world’ policy

Outside the northeastern city of Dandong, construction workers take a break. Photo: Ben Piven

Multimedia producer Ben Piven writes about China’s ascendancy, after reporting on cultural and political issues from East Asia.

“Thirty years ago, you couldn’t find anything in American supermarkets made in China. Now, when an American friend shops for a gift, he can’t find one not made in China.”

Wu Jianmin, a high-level adviser and former president of China Foreign Affairs University, recalled his admiration for American supermarkets when he first came to the U.S. in 1971. He had been accustomed to government ration coupons for textiles, rice and most other goods.

China is no longer just playing catch-up, said Wu, who briefed a group of American journalists at China’s Consulate-General in New York last Wednesday. He and four other high-ranking foreign policy experts were on a world tour, promoting increasingly confident Chinese President Hu Jintao’s concept of a “harmonious world.”

This policy entails peaceful development, a repudiation of territorial expansion, and a non-aligned stance. But mounting Western pressure to force Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear weapons programs is testing China’s commitment to this program.

Wu and his fellow policy wonks emphasized that Americans need to have patience, despite saying that China does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Regardless, China will display its own new weaponry on October 1.

“Congratulations on your 60th birthday. I’m looking forward to watching the parade on television,” I said to Wu and his team, eliciting a chorus of laughter. “But should Americans be worried about the weaponry that you’ll be displaying?” I asked.

“America is a great country. You’ve got nothing to worry about. Our weaponry is peanuts compared to yours,” Wu responded.

Then, ABC News‘ Chuck Lustig asked if the U.S. is losing geopolitical clout. Wu respectfully declined to comment.

Zhang Yuyan, a prominent economist in the group, responded adeptly to Newsweek senior editor Rana Foroohar’s question about the export economy. Since exports started shrinking last year, China has struggled to transition from an unsustainable export-led growth model and take steps to bolster domestic consumption. The Chinese government will be hard-pressed to stimulate demand and dis-incentivize traditional tendencies to save.

The diplomats were exceptionally honest about China’s environmental problems. “We pollute too much,” said Wu. “It’s not sustainable. We’ve got to change too.”

As China builds fast rail, superhighways, and skyscrapers at breakneck speed, the U.S. emerges from the worst recession in decades. China invests heavily in alternative energy infrastructure, and America is bogged down in massive geopolitical quagmires.

We can expect a 21st century in which power is spread more broadly across the continents. While an Asian century per se might not be upon us, the Red Dragon is fostering its bold vision of a “harmonious world.”

– Ben Piven

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September 16, 2009
Suicide is ignored underbelly of South Korean society

A memorial for former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that suicide in South Korea has grown more common over the past two decades, and the nation has the highest suicide rate among OECD countries — around 22 deaths per 100,000 individuals.

In May of this year, in a high-profile case, former President Roh Moo-hyun lept from a cliff to his death following a corruption scandal.

A Worldfocus contributing blogger at “Jamblichus” criticizes the lack of awareness about suicide in South Korea, particularly compared to the enormous publicity surrounding the H1N1 flu.

Yellow tape encircled the apartment’s parking lot. The rooftop of the seven-story building crawled with small figures assessing angles and examining a rail. I could see it all from the top of the neighbouring hill I’d climbed near my house. Someone had fallen or jumped. Given the rail it seemed the latter was more likely.

Later my wife asked a friend who lived in the same block what had happened. The woman looked at her, paused, and continued their previous conversation as if the question hadn’t been asked; somethings are better left unsaid or unasked, her body language read. (아는게 병, 모르는게 약, as the Korean adage has it: the knowledge is disease, not knowing is the medicine. Or “ignorance is bliss” for an English language equivalent).

Meanwhile Seoul’s gripped in H1N1 flu hysteria. Supermarket assistants clutch sterilizing sprays and wipe down the handle on your trolley, politely asking you to momentarily remove the sweaty paws of your toddler first; offices proffer antiseptic handwipes at their reception desks. Death is all around! Argh, gargle, a-tissue!

Except… well, it’s not. There have been 7500 people diagnosed with the flu and 7 deaths since May. And almost all who’ve died have been old, infirm, or already had severe health problems. Compare this to a massive social issue in South Korea: suicide.

It’s not talked about much and definetely not the subject of mass mobilization and a media frenzy. But the Seoul suicide prevention centre receives well over a 1000 calls every month. And the country has the highest suicide rate of all Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

The National Statistical Office (NSO) informs us that a total of 12,858 people, or 24.3 people for every 100,000 Koreans, took their own lives in 2008. That’s 35 suicides every day. EVERY DAY! My mountainous view was no anomaly.

Yet unlike the drugs companies, whose stock jumps with the news of every death, Good Samaritans don’t profit from the snuffing out of another life. And such hotlines are staffed by volunteers; there is no sub-economy of suicide, no business deals, no international threat levels. Suicide is just not sexy.

“If it bleeds, it leads” goes the old journalism chestnut, yet while the flu has gone pandemic — and the coverage has been spread like a mucus-smeared rag across, well, every rag — real bleeding, rather than sneezing, goes tragically overlooked: it’s just the desperate underbelly of a society on a very narrow pair of rails with a very steep drop on either side.

For more, read the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user letsbook under a Creative Commons license.

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September 7, 2009
Chavez continues whirlwind ‘tour of tyrannies’

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez visited Iran, on the fourth stop of his 6-nation tour of some of the world’s most anti-American regimes, including Russia, Algeria, Syria and Libya. Some anti-Chavez commentators are calling the voyage a “tour of tyrannies.”

Chavez pledged closer ties to Iran and inked a deal yesterday with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to supply the Middle Eastern nation with up to 20,000 barrels of oil per day.

Today, Chavez appeared at the Venice Film Festival premier of a new Oliver Stone film about the Venezuelan strongman.

Meanwhile, massive protests erupted in Caracas this weekend. Anti-Chavistas are furious about the government’s economic policies and media crackdown. The news report below is from RCTV, an anti-Chavez Venezuelan news network.

Blogger Daniel-Venezuela writes about the importance of recent demonstrations. Read the original post here.

You only need to look at the overreacting of many Chavistas to notice that no matter how big yesterday’s No Mas Chavez rally were, Chavista officialdom is really upset. They cannot hide it.

Be it Chavez who takes lots of time to explain to us he does not care, from Syria, from Iran.

Be it the Venezuelan ambassador in Bogota who says that Venezuela is insulted (correction, you might be insulted, I am not) and implying that the Bogota government should not allow such demonstrations.

In fact Chavismo is so upset that revenge must be exacted. Thus Globovison, the closest object at hand, once again is under attack by a particularly bitter Diosdado Cabello, the guy in charge while Chavez visits the planets collection of tyrants. Not only a new investigation against Globovision is undertaken for a single alleged SMS (whereas the VTV ticker spews constant violence that the regime supports by ignoring them), but 29 more radio stations are to be taken off the air waves (in addition to the 34 already killed). Globovison offers the video of Cabello threats and bitterness. But the world is noticing and Diosdado words hit the news wires fast, even in English. They sure will be a nice complement to Chavez words supporting Iran’s nuclear program today

Meanwhile there will be more wounds to lick for Chavismo: BBCMundo reports that in Honduras the No Mas Chavez was big in 5 cities of the small country while the pro-Chavez Zelayista camp could only manage an activity in Tegucigalpa…A very bad P.R. week for Chavismo.

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September 2, 2009
What does a CIA interrogation probe mean for Pakistan?

Protesters in Washington D.C. voice their opposition to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in April.

The Obama administration continues to revisit the anti-terror policies of the Bush era.   But civil liberties advocates say that the CIA is not cooperating with President Obama.

Worldfocus contributing blogger Sana Saleem argues Pakistanis have a right to know details of the alleged abuse. Read the full post here. An excerpt is below.

The heart-wrenching stories of torture have raised grave concerns globally. Many across the world have questioned these treatments, weighing them as staunch violations of human rights. Most importantly, the American people have shown great concern over the severity of these torture tactics and have demanded public release of the interrogation memos of the CIA.

Despite President Obama’s assurance to the CIA officers regarding prosecutions, the concerns of the American people and the world seems to linger on. Reuters reports that sleep deprivation, “insult slaps,” water dousing and “walling,” or slamming a detainee’s head against a wall, were techniques used by CIA interrogators to break high-value detainees, according to an agency memo. The memo goes on outlining that the the goal of interrogation is to create a state of learned helplessness and dependence conducive to the collection of intelligence. Further elaborating the memo the Washington Post stated that after removing the hood, the interrogator opens with a slap across the face — to get the detainees attention — followed by other slaps, the guidelines state…

“Twenty or thirty times consecutively” is permissible, the guidelines say, “if the interrogator requires a more significant response to a question.” And if that fails, there are far harsher techniques to be tried.

This does not end here according to a memo, released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Amnesty International USA and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“Certain interrogation techniques place the detainee in more physical and psychological stress and, therefore, are considered more effective tools,” these include waterboarding, electrocuting, fake executions and various other methods of psychological and physical torture. Moreover, the new released memo discloses detailed information of types of psychological torture. BBC reports that on various occasions Agents threatened to kill a key terror suspect’s children and sexually assault another’s mother. The US Justice Department is reported to be reopening a dozen prisoner abuse cases, for which John Durham has been appointed as a special US prosecutor for investigations.

For many of us the question is not only about prosecutions, the concern is way beyond that of prosecutions, it is mainly about the truth that should be made public. The detailed reports on abuse and torture and the assurance that the US is determined to mark an end to it, are of primary concern. The strong emphasis laid on the release of the memos is proof enough that the people demand a detailed answer. An investigation about how and to what extend were the tortures carried out and whether or not the authorities are serious about ‘changing their ways’ seems to be the demand…

This is the time to introspect, to ask questions, to explain and to act on. I believe that the truth must be revealed. We have all heard stories of the horrendous torture, its time to hear it straight from the horse’s mouth. Especially in Pakistan, where anti-American sentiments continue to be on the rise. If truth is told and prosecutions are sought, a lot will change. It will reflect that the US is serious about strengthening its ties with the Muslim world in particular and is seriously concerned about its global image.

This could be a significant step forward towards the Muslim world, which currently feel ‘threatens’ by the existence of such techniques, provided that these could (and have) lead to innocent people admitting to crime under torture.

As we proudly claim to be the first hand ally of the United States, we deem it our right to know just how far has the US gone to get the ‘desired confessions.’ As a Pakistani, I consider this my right to know details regarding the abuse done. A natural right considering that many Pakistani nationals and foreign nationals arrested from within Pakistan are still detained in Gitmo. With President Obama in the White House, America promised a change not only in America but also on the global front, it’s time we witness that in action and not in mere words.

– Sana Saleem

Photo courtesy of Flickr user under a Creative Commons license.

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September 1, 2009
Head-to-toe Islamic veil rare in France

Multimedia producer Ben Piven lived in Paris in 2003. He explains the tension surrounding the French government’s attempts to restrict Islamic dress.

A French Muslim woman wears a niqab in Paris.

Six years ago, I was looking for an apartment in the French capital. Searching for the 5-A buzzer, an American friend and I came across an old French man who thought we were trespassing.

Vous allez faire un kamikaze?” he shouted, wondering whether we were about to blow up his building.

Avez-vous un tapis de priere?” he asked in a southern French accent, assuming that we were Moroccans who carry prayer rugs.

We responded that we were just American students, despite our relatively swarthy complexions, and then he proceeded with an extremist anti-Arab rant.

This was my first exposure to virulent French racism and cultural insensitivity. His tirade echoed the xenophobia of the far-right Front National party, which had received 17 percent of the vote in France’s 2002 presidential election.

Today, France is still wracked by intolerance and Islamophobia, despite a long tradition of democracy and dissent. As France struggles to integrate second-generation North Africans who are largely clustered in poor neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities, the Islamic dress controversy continues to rage.

In July, a report by French newspaper Le Monde revealed that just 367 women wear the full Islamic veil in France. The figure makes French President Nicholas Sarkozy seem heavy-handed in his recent declaration that the niqab was “not welcome.” This piece of hard evidence, supplied by data from two domestic intelligence agencies, makes it unlikely that the center-right Sarkozy would pursue an absolute ban. The hyperactive leader is known for his pragmatism, and he doesn’t want to appear too extremist.

The report comes amid a French legislative commission’s investigation on the use of the full veil in public places. The panel seeks to address the style’s popularity, and it will make a recommendation about the usefulness of a ban.

But there is linguistic confusion about the full veil. The Islamic article of clothing in question is actually the niqab (originally from Saudi Arabia), rather than the burka (popular in Afghanistan). An explanatory diagram in Le Point shows the differences between the three primary types of Muslim veil.

An Egyptian woman in Alexandria wearing a Burqini.

The evolution of conservative Islamic fashion does not stop there. In mid-August controversy erupted at a Paris pool surrounding the “burqini,” a bathing suit designed by Australian company Ahiida to uphold the modesty of Muslim women.

An editorial accompanying the niqab statistic in left-leaning Le Monde criticized the need to “legislate for an exception” and further stigmatize French Islam. Declaring the niqab to be a phénomène ultraminoritaire (very rare phenomenon), the editorial recognizes that the several hundred women who wear the niqab are not sufficiently integrated into French culture.

The French are fierce defenders of their secular republic and will defend women’s rights against fundamentalist religious customs such as the veil. But there are disagreements about whether it would be helpful to legislate religious expression in the public sphere.

“We cannot accept that women be prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity,” said the French president in June, frustrating many cultural commentators such as a blogger at “Moor Next Door“:

The trouble the French may want to worry about is not the burqa as it is worn in France today, but that such a ban, as the headscarf ban has done, will make the garment a greater symbol of Muslim identity and sign of cultural defiance. France has done a good job at finding ways of alienating racial and religious minorities. Indeed, among Western nations it is a leader in this field. This is a quality that does little to further the assimilationist cause the French so actively pursue.

The Le Monde report indeed suggests that most of the 367 women in question are under 30 and wear the niqab to make an explicit political point to defy French society — and in some cases, rebel against their own families. The vast majority of French Muslims reject the full body veils, according to the French intelligence reports. Moreover, according to the French Council of Muslim Worship, wearing the niqab is a personal, cultural choice.

But, unlike the U.S., France values secularism even more than the right to free expression of religion. A “burka ban” would never pass muster in the U.S. But French politicians insist that they will not fight a second battle to separate church from the French state. The first church-state battle was with the Catholic church, from which the government legally separated in 1905.

In 2004, France received much criticism after banning the headscarf in public schools. The law was one of many factors that led to more than a month of civil unrest by minority youths across France in November 2005.

France has Europe’s largest Muslim population, estimated around 5 million. But France does not keep official statistics on race or religion, so this figure could easily be much higher. Regardless, just one in every 90,000 French women wear the full-body veil. And apparently one-quarter of them are converts to Islam.

One French Muslim organization that has been discouraging women to wear the full veil is Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Submissives). Founded by Fadela Amara, a liberal Muslim woman of North African origin, the group promotes a modern combination of Islam and feminism.

Amara, now a minister in Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s right-leaning government, has become far more popular among politicians than among folks in la banlieue (working-class suburbs). Amara told Le Parisien last year:

The burka is a prison, it’s a straitjacket…It is not a religious insignia but the insignia of a totalitarian political project that advocates inequality between the sexes and which is totally devoid of democracy.

– Ben Piven

Photos courtesy of Flickr users I.Diabate and Giorgio Montersino under a Creative Commons license.

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August 31, 2009
What is the “human terrain” in Afghanistan?

Photo: Vanessa Gezari

Since 2007, an experimental Pentagon program has been sending teams of civilian anthropologists into the hardest-fought regions of Iraq and Afghanistan to understand the needs of local communities. The mission has become increasingly important to U.S. military strategy, but remains deeply controversial.

Social scientists work within frontline combat units to gather information and advise soldiers about the workings of the local economy, tribal structures, cultural norms and other elements of what the military calls the “human terrain.”

Journalist Vanessa Gezari of the Pulitzer Center is currently reporting on the Human Terrain project in Afghanistan. She is responding to your questions and comments about her story in The Washington Post Magazine.

Post your questions and comments below and Vanessa will answer them in the coming week.

Visit “Afghanistan: Human Terrain” to view Vanessa’s dispatches from the field, including slideshows and  links to additional resources.

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August 27, 2009
In Mexico, drug legalization is a mixed bag

The Mexican government has decriminalized small amounts of drugs. A person may now carry up to five grams of marijuana without penalty.

In Mexico, a new law has been passed to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of narcotics including marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD and crystal meth. Instead of serving jail time, those found with drugs at or under the legal limit will be referred to drug treatment programs.

Sean Goforth of “Foreign Policy Blogs” examines the pros and cons of Mexico’s new law.

The decriminalization of drug use in Mexico is bound to have unintended consequences. Beginning last Friday, possession of small amounts of drugs, including cocaine, heroine, LSD, marijuana and meth, is permitted. Such wholesale legalization is crude, but may prove beneficial to the Mexican economy.

Having up to four joints on you (the legal limit is five grams) isn’t going to have a societal impact. Prosecutions for possession were already non-existent in Mexico. Studies commissioned under the tenure of Gen. Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton’s “Drug Czar”, concluded that marijuana is not a “gateway” drug. It is widely believed not to be addictive, and it is not known to induce violent behavior.

If anything, this law will undercut corruption among local police, as they will no longer be able to hassle those with a joint in order to get a bribe. Still, marijuana is one thing, but should Mexico have legalized cocaine? Crystal meth? Heroine? LSD?

I for one don’t think so. Little good can come of legalizing such powerful and addictive drugs. Drug-related violence may well increase, even if cartel violence decreases, as the desperation of addiction grows in Mexico’s cities and towns.

Portugal decriminalized drug use in 2001 in order to focus on rehabilitation. Mexico, unlike Portugal, does not currently have the facilities to treat a potential surge in drug addiction. The cartels, for their part, will continue to target America as the destination of their product. So if low-level violence and/or addiction-related deaths increase in Mexico, poorly crafted legislation will be to blame.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user splifr under a Creative Commons license.

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August 26, 2009
To shave or not to shave in Pakistan’s Swat Valley

Beards were mandated in Swat Valley under Taliban rule.

Residents of Pakistan’s Swat Valley are readjusting to life after the end of Taliban rule, nearly three months after Pakistan retook the area with a military offensive.

Under Taliban rule, barbers were banned from shaving off beards. As a Worldfocus contributor writes, that rule is no longer in effect — but having a beard is still not a matter of choice.

Phyza Jameel is a Pakistani journalist and the bureau chief of CNBC-Pakistan in Lahore, writing at the “Frontline Blog.”

“He has an appointment with you; he has come from Swat,” my assistant informed me. I was confused; I had a meeting scheduled with Sarmad Behzaad, one of my dedicated news sources from the Swat region.

“Send him in,” I told my assistant. He sat down and started with the usual polite greetings in the Swati Urdu accent. This was Sarmad. “My God,” I said, “You look so different.”

I had met Sarmad some six months back. Then, a cluster of thick hair hung on his face, a beard from which it was difficult to locate his mouth and nose. “How did this happen?” I asked.

Sarmad smirked and said, “We had been forced to grow beards because of the strong Taliban influence. All the barbershops were closed and clean-shaven men were intimidated by them, so we all had to grow beards.”

“Did you shave when the Taliban left?” I asked.

“No, it wasn’t that the Taliban went away and we shaved — actually we were now used to it — but recently, having a beard has become more of a problem. Now that the security forces have taken control, they are suspecting every bearded man as being part of the Taliban. It was so much hassle that I had to let it go.”

Back in the spring, Swat was one of the most affluent places of the entire northern region. Since it was a popular tourist destination, the people had more interaction and in general were more cosmopolitan.

People in Swat were more advanced in terms of education and business. But during the time of Taliban control, the people of Swat had to obey absurd regulations in the name of Islam. Taliban banned men from wearing pants as well as from shaving their beard and moustache. Barbershops were closed and barbers were threatened and ordered not to shave any man labelling it as “haraam.”

According to Sarmad, during the Taliban period it was hard to find any clean-shaven men. Since the military operation has been completed, 80 percent of the men are now clean-shaven in Swat and the surrounding area.

As Sarmad states, “ To keep a beard or not to keep beard — it’s not a personal choice in Swat; it’s directly related to the ruling agenda in the region.”

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user aturkus under a Creative Commons license.

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August 24, 2009
Japan’s fledgling two-party system set to evolve

Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Japan is set to head to the polls for parliamentary elections on August 30, and polling suggests Prime Minister Taro Aso’s conservative party will lose power after ruling for most of the past 54 years.

Some analysts suggest that this election may herald an era of a two-party political system.

Yoichi Funabashi is the editor-in-chief of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. He writes at the “East Asia Forum” about changes ahead for the Japanese political landscape.

Halfway through the 2004 U.S. presidential primaries, a taxi driver engaged me in conversation as he drove me from a hotel in Qingdao, in the eastern part of China’s Shandong province, to the airport.

‘In the United States, the Republicans and the Democrats appeal to the public by highlighting the differences in their policies. That is why there is dynamism in their politics,’ he said. ‘In China, with the Kuomintang in Taiwan becoming more realistic, what would happen if a two-party system was set up with the Communist Party and the Kuomintang and have the two alternate in government? By the way, what is the situation in Japan? Are there two major parties in Japan like in the United States? Are they competing with each other? What are the choices presented to the people?’

Reflexively, I responded: ‘Of course they are competing,’ I said. ‘In Japan, it comes down to a battle between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan. Like the United States, Japan has free elections.’

However, I soon caught myself pondering the issue more deeply as I began to realize that it was not entirely obvious what it is that the LDP and the DPJ are competing over.

What, in fact, are the choices that are being presented to the Japanese public?

There are other questions facing Japan right now. Will it have a two-party system like the United States? Is such a system even desirable? Will the Lower House election on August 30 be a choice between promoting that trend or not?

Five years down the road, has the time finally come when I can proudly respond to that taxi driver’s question?

[…] Scrutinizing the policies presented in the campaign manifestoes of the LDP and the DPJ, there is a blurring of the differences because the LDP appears to have come up with measures that simulate those of the DPJ in areas such as child-rearing support and education policy.

In addition, the record-level economic stimulation measures taken to address the global economic crisis have led to a confrontation between ‘big government’ and ‘big government.’

[…] If an age of two-party politics is to emerge in Japan, it should be one that pits a conservative force against a liberal one.

However, it remains to be seen if a two-party system in which both parties are capable of handling government will actually emerge.

The range of alternatives before the public will only expand if opposition parties present counterproposals to policies presented by the ruling party, and if the ruling camp subsequently presents even more counterproposals.

There can be no choice without alternatives. Alternatives must involve decisions on what should be changed as well as what should not be changed.

One reason for the current confusion in Japan is its failure as a nation to respond to questions such as whether it wants to continue to depend on exports or move toward a domestic demand-based economy, whether the environment and the economy are mutually exclusive, whether it seeks to become a multiethnic society and whether it will push reform or return to square one.

To read more, see the original post.

The views expressed by contributing bloggers do not reflect the views of Worldfocus or its partners.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user World Economic Forum under a Creative Commons license.

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August 21, 2009
In Afghanistan, a kaleidoscope of alliances and betrayals

Photo: Scott Bohlinger

Scott Bohlinger is a political analyst and writer who has lived in Afghanistan since 2006. He works for a non-governmental organization in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan and has traveled extensively in the Middle East.

One of my favorite pastimes of late has been talking to people about who they’re voting for and why. Politics is universal, but political thoughts are heavily shaped and molded by cultural contexts. Whatever people’s education levels, they get the concept of political participation and voting, and I’ve found that they reject voting only insofar as they don’t think the vote will be respected.

The big difference I encounter here in Afghanistan is in how people talk about politics and their candidates, which seems surprising to somebody from the U.S., France or Iran.

In Afghanistan, with its multiplicity of figures in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of alliances and betrayals, the political landscape often appears inscrutable to the uninitiated. The reasons for these shifting currents are there, although outsiders don’t always properly appreciate them.

People who told me they would vote against Karzai because he was supported by former warlord Abdurrashid Dostum all of a sudden appeared teary-eyed alongside the road to watch his convoy a few days later when he returned from Turkey. The cause was simple: Their rational analysis of the pros and cons of his rule had been replaced by their emotional attachment to a man who had brought relative stability to this party of the country, when the rest was in chaos.

Photo: Scott Bohlinger

One day, while driving to the gym, my driver and I were looking at all the campaign posters and related activity in town, poking fun and sharing opinions. He didn’t have much definitive to say about any of the current contenders, but instead went on at length about some strongman whom he particularly liked during the Soviet occupation. The next day, he had a completely different story. Evidently, my driver had decided to throw his weight behind Karzai. Suddenly, it was Karzai who could do no wrong. “Karzai built everything in this country after the war — he’s honest, clean and has personality integrity.”

The argument against Karzai is that he hasn’t done enough and doesn’t possess any of those qualities, but I didn’t see the point in arguing that. So I asked my driver how he had been convinced of this. He must have had a conversation with his friends over qalyan (sheesha or water pipes) or heard the argument from an akhund (priest), I thought. His response was “No, that’s just the way things are.”

This is one story, but it typifies many others encounters that I’ve had. During a fast food break in Samangan, a man sat across from me while I was eating my kebab and extolled the virtues of a previous regime that he particularly liked for three reasons: 1) you could leave your door unlocked, 2) there was no theft and 3) so-and-so distributed swift and equitable justice.

It annoys me as a Westerner because I feel it sets up unrealistic expectations of leaders and therefore just perpetuates the cycle of violence. But these narratives help people structure the world around them to create meaning — even if they are myths. In Afghanistan, political power is often understood and explained through myths about individuals rather than through the specific issues they stand for.

– Scott Bohlinger

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Perspectives highlights the best of the blogosphere by cross-posting columns culled from a network of contributors. We cut through the noise of tens of millions of bloggers worldwide and bring you commentary from experts and voices on the ground.

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