Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bullet Bulletin

Byline by M J Akbar: Bullet Bulletin

Geneva: The last time Switzerland went to war was over five centuries ago. We are at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, in the sunlight of the Alps, to discuss what is politely called the "security" environment of South Asia. What they mean of course is insecurity, and South Asia extends up to the arc of Central Asia: the epicentres of the latest conflict are Afghanistan and Iraq with their echoes to the east and west. Geneva is arguably the world capital of peace, a safe haven for the United Nations and NGOs. Peace is a militant ideology of Switzerland, a far stronger virtue than morality for a country that has side-stepped the rough winds of high militarism, rampant imperialism and barbaric Nazism to place itself on the lofty peak of neutrality. When such a nation feels the surge of war at its doorstep, then the shadows have stretched far beyond the epicentre.

The sequence is lethal, the consequence bitter. War kills, maims and, perhaps worst of all, dehumanises, since it treats death, rather than life, as normal. It is a myth that the world has been at peace since the Second World War. War merely shifted its theatre of operations to Asia, Africa and Latin America. What is the corpse count of the last 60 years? No one knows, except that we are still counting in the bloodstained crevices of Rwandan memory, or the daily bulletins of Iraq. I have not checked the dictionary, but it seems logical that bulletin should be a philological cousin of bullet. How many have died in Iraq already? Half a million? Less? This much is certain: each dead man, woman and child, whether Arab, American or British, has relatives and friends who will live the pain and alchemise their anger into some stream of political lava. This lava has already scalded the principal architects of this war, George Bush and Tony Blair. Both have aged twenty years in five. Both have been defeated by Iraq, although their nations fight on. Both are in the process of handing over leadership of this conflict to a successor. Blair will go in a few months. Bush will struggle through a blinding mist for a little longer, having, in the words of Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the American Iraq Study Group, depleted America’s blood and treasure. And moral authority.

Sequence dominates the headlines, consequence rarely gets honoured by similar attention, since it kills deviously, in silence, with a slow poison that courses through the sinews of society. One of the most startling statistics I heard is that there are now five million heroin addicts in Pakistan. That means, roughly, that one out of 30 Pakistanis is an addict. Heroin is a war crop of Afghanistan, a by-product of a quarter century of invasion, turbulence, civil war and occupation. The Taliban have much to answer for, but in one respect they were right: they burnt out poppy cultivation. Before they were defeated Afghanistan’s share of the world’s drug supply was down to seven per cent. This year, Afghanistan will supply 90 per cent of the world’s street drugs, and production is at such a record all-time high that prices of heroin are going to fall in the dark alleys of America, Europe and Australia.

What is the cash flow of the Afghan drugs trade? Not billions, but trillions of dollars.

Who gets rich from this business? Not the Afghan farmer, who gets a pittance. The value addition from field to Amsterdam street is 500 times.

How does Afghan poppy reach every corner of the civilised world? On Aladdin’s flying carpet? In the secret pouches of medieval "Islamic fundamentalists" in the pay of some dreaded "Caliph"? The business and cash flows are run by men who drink gin and tonic, or bourbon and rye, or champers in their yachts before they write a cheque to political lobbies of their choice in flourishing democracies. This is the largest cash-flow of any business with effective supply lines, protection, managers, wholesalers, dealers, criminals and profiteers on various rungs of the ladder before it reaches the victim. Such a volume of trade cannot be hidden. It travels through land and sea, on trucks and ships. Can you name a single instance in which a supply operation has been busted by Nato, which has 37,000 troops in Afghanistan? When asked, Nato’s commanders blandly reply that destroying the drug trade is not part of their mission. Thus is the corrosive price of war paid, from the blood that flows on the battlefield to the heroin that courses through young veins.

Peace is impossible without security, which of course is the problem. Security has many dimensions: intellectual, historical, perceptual, basic, empirical, and even acquisitive. "Energy security" has brought armies to endless swathes of sand for a century, as hungry nations want to control the source of this resource. Michael Friend, an American expert, points out that India was the focal point of the Great Game played out between the superpowers of the 19th century, Britain and Russia. In the 20th, India was replaced by oil. Oil has no ideology: the Bush administration had no qualms about negotiating an oil pipeline with the Taliban before 9/11. "Islamic fundamentalism", a term which contains more inaccuracies within two words than might be found in a book, was never a problem. Energy is as much the concern of tomorrow’s economic powers: India imports 70 per cent of its energy needs, and the figure will rise to 85 per cent in 20 years. China’s foreign policy is crafted quite substantially by its energy needs. Boundaries are a more obvious definition of security, or its opposite: they remain the most turbulent lines of history. Only those regions who have made boundaries virtual have found peace. India and China found a formula, under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping, when they stored all claims in the locker rooms of the foreign office and committed their nations to peace and stability on the border. The claims did not disappear. They merely disappeared from view. That was the basis of the trade we see today. There was one kind of security that never appeared on any horizon: poverty security. How safe are resurrecting nations like India and China from the anger of their own poor? China recorded 86,000 "insurrections" in one year, and there are 170 districts in India that have become bases of a Maoist movement. This anger will not be kept at bay; it will seep into the comfort zones of the privileged unless it is assuaged by wealth distribution. That is the real, and common challenge, that faces India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. What is true of a nation is true of the world.

In my last column I made a brave, if naive, claim. I thought that the latest furore about exotic forms of killing, that of former KGB operative Alexander Litvinenko by polonium 210 had nothing to do with the circumcised. On Thursday, he was finally buried in a radioactive-proof coffin. His last rites were performed in a London mosque. A few days before he died, Alexander converted to Islam. A fascinating story is beginning to emerge. He was a KGB agent in Chechnya, where he made friends with a leader of the rebels... Watch out for more details, but this is a story that will travel from the gloom of espionage to the imagination of innumerable minds. Wars are fought outside the headlines as well.

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