This week's editor

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Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

Kosovo and Palestine

If the current Israeli-Palestinian peacenegotiations fail - at the time of writing they have been suspended by thePalestinian side in protest at Israel'smilitary response to rocket fire from Gaza - the Palestinian leaders in Ramallahostensibly have three options:

Kosovo, Palestine, Iraq: the limits of analogy

The declaration of independence by Kosovo on 17 February 2008 is an important victory for the ideas of self-determination and national sovereignty. Ever since most of the old Ottoman vilayet of Kosovo was annexed to Serbia in 1912 after the first Balkan war, the province's mainly Muslim Albanian population suffered under Serbian rule. After 1918, Yugoslavia tried to change the demographic balance by encouraging Serbs to settle in the province, viewed as the birthplace of the Serbian nation. In Titoist Yugoslavia, Kosovo enjoyed an autonomous status, but with the re-emergence of Serbian nationalism under Slobodan Milosevic this was cancelled, Albanian-language schools were closed, and Serbian functionaries from Belgrade replaced local Kosovar Albanian officials.

The SWISH Report (10)

A seventh report from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics to the al-Qaida Strategic Planning Cell (SPC) on the progress of the campaign and its ultimate realisation. Click here to read earlier reports.

Thank you for inviting us to deliver a further report on the progress of your movement. You will recall that our work for your planning cell commenced with an initial assessment in July 2004, a follow-up in January 2005 and further reports in February 2006 and September 2006. Because of your concerns over the outcome of the United States mid-sessional elections to Congress in November 2006 you asked us to present an additional report, which we did in December.

We appreciate that it is unusual for you to require a further analysis so soon after our last report in November 2007, but we understand that the pace of events in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan - amid the wider context of the United States presidential election campaign, is such that a further assessment would be useful.

We further understand that you are particularly interested in the recent developments in the US and that you require an assessment as to whether your movement should take any action in the context of its forthcoming election in November 2008. We will therefore review briefly the developments in the other countries before focussing on that element.

Finally, you wish us to make an initial assessment of your ultimate aim of establishing a new caliphate. This we will do in the spirit of openness that you have sought in the past. Our conclusions may not be expected and it is possible that this will be the last report you will commission from us.

Pakistan and Afghanistan

The benefit we have of operating in western Pakistan is one denied to most analysts. It allows us to draw attention to one of the most important features of the 18 February elections in the country, which was missed by most foreign commentators: the exceptionally low turn-out - below 30% overall, and below 20% in some districts. This alone means that too much is being made of the outcome. Within that context, three features of the election and its aftermath are relevant. The first is that the decline in the size of the Islamist vote is less significant than it might appear, given the decision by some parties to boycott the elections. Some argue that such boycotts were solely aimed to avert the embarrassment of certain defeat; but the real point is that in many parts of western Pakistan, elections are simply not relevant since politics works in other ways.

The second point is that Pervez Musharraf has been much weakened by the election outcome; even if he survives, he will carry very little authority. This is a concern for the United States which had hoped for a link-up between Musharraf and the Bhutto family's Pakistan People's Party (PPP). If a PPP/Nawaz Sharif coalition emerges instead (as seems more likely), the result is both no guarantee of stability and greater government caution than would otherwise have been the case about supporting or endorsing US military actions in Pakistan.

The third and most important point is the revelation this week that the CIA has been operating Predator drones from a base within Pakistan. In one incident, an armed Predator from this base which fired two Hellfire missiles at a target (also within Pakistan) killed a senior paramilitary leader and many other people. Many observers had assumed that such deployments were indeed part of US policy; this, however, is direct confirmatory evidence that will in due course lead to major problems for the evolving coalition in Islamabad.

Across the border in Afghanistan, we are aware from our local contacts that your Taliban associates are in a position to undertake major actions in spring and summer 2008; we also know that the leadership has excellent intelligence on the build-up of US and British forces in the south and southeast of the country. We have good reason to doubt that a spring offensive will develop as widely predicted. If so, then Nato commanders will hail this as a victory. But they will be wrong.

The Taliban leadership operates with a markedly sophisticated level of military leadership that is recognised among some of the more intelligent senior officers within Nato - though not by the alliance as a whole and certainly not by the western media. This is important enough, but an additional and even more significant development in Afghanistan is the extent to which paramilitaries are now applying the tactics and deploying the munitions developed in Iraq. We strongly doubt that they are going to be in the business of frontal military assaults at any time in the next six months. Instead, they will almost certainly melt away in the face of the additional US marines and Britain's Parachute Regiment forces which will arrive in Helmand province in the coming weeks; and rely far more on urban guerrilla warfare, especially in Kabul, making much use of martyr attacks.

The scale of the revenues now accruing from the drugs trade, especially the move towards the highly profitable refining of raw opium paste into heroin and morphine within Afghanistan, suggests to us the direction of Taliban strategy. Its militia will opt for a slow but persistent campaign stretching over three to four years, designed to wear down the commitment of some Nato states (Canada is the initial focus here). The longer-term nature of this effort means that over the shorter term, Nato may be able to foster the impression of some success and progress. Again, this will be a highly misleading interpretation.

Iraq

The United States military surge has had some effect, but (as we argued in November 2007) this should not cause you concern. As our report then said:

"The Bush administration, and especially its neo-conservative elements, has now focused on an overall Iraqi narrative of 'probability of victory'. We know this is a chimera but they do not. The consequence of this is that the administration will aim to downgrade the Iraq war in the public consciousness in the coming months, even as the surge is forced to come to an end because of military overstretch."

In the past three months that has proved an accurate prognosis. There has been a recent increase in violence in Iraq, but not enough to have an impact within the United States. Unless there are very major changes in the coming months, the US is not going to have its "Suez moment" - as Britain did when facing up to its declining imperial power and the need for decolonisation in the wake of the brief Suez war of 1956.

We also pointed out in our last report that the oil factor remains a foundation of US security policy in the region, and that this alone makes any full-scale withdrawal from Iraq unlikely for some decades. Although circumstances will not always be as favourable as 2006-07, rest assured that your paramilitary combat-training zone in Iraq will remain viable and of great use to you for the foreseeable future.

The US election campaign

What then of US politics? Three months ago we, like most analysts, saw Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton as the frontrunners. We thought Clinton was the best of the Democratic candidates for you, given her relatively hardline stance on middle-east policy, and we regarded Giuliani as even better.

Times have certainly changed (as we did say was possible...) and John McCain now looks the overwhelmingly likely Republican candidate with Barack Obama emerging as the probable (though not yet certain) candidate on the Democratic side. From your point of view, McCain is reasonably good news. He is reliably hawkish on Iraq and Afghanistan, and although the political momentum of an incoming president gives a conservative president greater scope for policy reversals, we believe the power of the defence and energy lobbies may be too strong for any major changes to come in a McCain first term.

We cannot, however, be certain. It is possible for hawkish leaders (who have thus established their security credentials) to become unexpectedly flexible in office - witness Charles de Gaulle and Algeria, Richard Nixon and China, Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinians. You should therefore entertain the possibility of McCain using his "honeymoon" period (if you will permit us an exotic idiom) to order a radical withdrawal from Iraq. If he does, then your immediate response must be a very strong message hailing victory for your movement. This could well lead to a reversal of his policy.

A new perspective is offered by Barack Obama's progress, and we assume that this is the matter that most concerns you. If Obama does succeed in winning the Democratic nomination, and if he then survives the very heavy pressure on him from the Republican machine, then he may be in a strong position as the election approaches. It is at this stage that you may wish to consider your options. These, however - we would stress - depend primarily on how you would expect Obama to perform as president in relation to how you would most like the United States to behave.

What is best for you is that the United States remains resolute in its support for Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt; fully addicted to oil and therefore determined to remain dominant in the Persian Gulf; and prepared to continue to pursue its war against you with the utmost vigour. In other words, eight more years for George W Bush would have been ideal.

Sadly for your movement, that cannot be.

What, then, of Obama? The candid answer is that we cannot be sure. All the rhetoric notwithstanding, we actually expect little change should he be elected. Yet since we cannot be certain, we would recommend that any sign of his leading the polls close to the actual election date should be met by strong statements from your leader, welcoming the possibility of the election of a president with whom you can do business. That should do much to prevent his being elected.

The long term

Finally, you ask our opinion on your long-term prospects. We have always taken the view that this is a conflict likely to stretch over decades, and we anticipate that you will eventually take control of a country in the middle east or southwest Asia, as a prelude to establishing a new caliphate. The most propitious time for this to happen is when your "far enemy" has had enough of its burdensome military entanglements, an event that you will no doubt see and claim as a great victory.

Yet we are obliged (to use another exotic idiom) to speak truth to power. In the context of your success in winning control of an individual state, the principle enjoins us to express the conviction that only then will your problems really start. While our institute specialises in strategic hermeneutics, we also cover other disciplines, not least political sociology; and our belief is that your version of uncompromising Islamist rule is as unsustainable in the early 21st century as is the American notion that the US can indefinitely occupy countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Your Taliban associates were initially welcomed by many Afghans in the mid-1990s as a stabilising force in the face of the horrors of warlord rule. Even by 2000, though, the doctrinaire rigidity of its regime was losing the movement support. One of the great unknowns of the decade is what would have happened to the Taliban regime if the 9/11 attacks had failed. We suspect that its regime would have been forced to moderate its style of governance, as indeed was already starting to happen in 2001.

You invoke and celebrate the Abbasids, a thousand years ago, as the greatest Islamic caliphate in history; and you seek to recreate that greatness. But for much of their 250-year history, the Abbasids oversaw a flowering of art, architecture, medicine, mathematics and the sciences; they were also notably tolerant of Christians and Jews. We do not see similar attitudes in the speeches and writings of your leaders. Instead there is a dogmatism of attitude that we think would not allow you to hold power even for a decade - let alone a century.

It is said that revolutions change merely the accents of the elites, and we fear that such would be the consequence of your movement coming to power. A lack of flexibility would lead to unbending pursuit of a false purity that would decay rapidly into a bitter autocracy, leading quite possibly to a counter-revolution.

If you really want to succeed then you have to engage in thinking that goes far beyond what appear to be the limits and flaws of your current analysis. We would be happy to assist, but we doubt that your leadership will be willing to allow us to do so. We therefore submit this as possibly our last report.

Wana
South Waziristan
28 February 2008

 

This is the tenth report openDemocracy has published from the South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (SWISH). Six have advised al-Qaida, two the British governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and one the United States state department:


"The SWISH Report" (14 July 2004) – to al-Qaida:
"The immediate requirement…is therefore to aid, in any way within the framework of your core values, the survival of the Bush administration."

"The SWISH Report (2)" (13 January 2005) - to al-Qaida:
"You are… in the early stages of a decades-long confrontation, and early ‘success' should not in any way cause you to underestimate the problems that lie ahead."

"The SWISH Report (3)" (19 May 2005) – to the British government:
"We believe that disengagement from Iraq, more emphasis on post-conflict reconstruction in Afghanistan, and vigorous diplomacy in support of a two-state Israel/Palestine solution offer you the best short-term hope of avoiding further damage to your government's credibility in relation to the United States-led war on terror."

"The SWISH Report (4)" (1 September 2005) – to the United States state department:
"What we find quite extraordinary is the manner in which the full extent of your predicament in Iraq is still not appreciated by your political leadership."

"The SWISH Report (5)" (2 February 2006) – to al-Qaida:
"The greatest risk to your movement is that the opinions of some of the sharper analysts on both sides of the Atlantic begin to transcend those of the political and religious fundamentalists that currently dominate the scene. If that were to happen, then you could be in serious trouble within two or three years."

"The SWISH Report (6)" (7 September 2006) – to al-Qaida:
"(The) influence of your movement and your leader is considerable, but you are not in control of your own strategy; rather, you form just one part of a wider process that is as diffuse and unpredictable as it is potent. You could point to the United States failure to control its global war on terror and you would be correct to do so. You could then claim that it is your own movement that is setting the pace - but you would be wrong. The truly revealing development of recent months is that we have reached a point, five years after 9/11 where no one, but no one, is in control."

"The SWISH Report (7)" (7 December 2006) – to al-Qaida:
"In Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as across the wider middle east, it is the power and influence of the United States that is in crisis. Your movement may not be entirely coherent and the overall circumstances may be more complex than a few months ago, but it probably has greater potential for enhancement and further development than at any time in the past five years."

"The SWISH Report (8)" (16 May 2007) - to the British govern-ment:
"Radical changes in your policies in relation to Iraq and Israel are es-sential, together with a review of policy options for Afghanistan. More generally, you must start the process of reorientating political and security thinking towards the real long-term global challenges."

"The SWISH Report (9)" (29 November 2007) - to al-Qaida:
"Our broad conclusions are that your prospects are good. Developments in Iraq should not worry you; events in Afghanistan and Pakistan are markedly positive for you; and the work of your associates elsewhere, including north Africa, is a bonus.We do have to confess to one concern that may surprise you...In a number of western countries the issue of global climate change is rising rapidly up the political agenda and one of the effects of this is to begin to make some analysts and opinion-formers question the western addiction to oil.”


Kosova and Albania: history, people, identity

The issue of national identity always has the capacity to provoke argument and debate, especially perhaps among peoples who share many similarities yet who are divided by political boundaries. The Albanians of Kosova (the territory is spelled thus in its Albanian form) are one of those groups who were and are understandably obsessed with issues relating to their ethnic and national identity. For many years, they knew what there were not. They never liked to be called Yugoslavs, though for decades they had Yugoslav passports and benefited from freedoms which people in Albania itself could only have dreamed of. And they were certainly not Serbs, though much of the world regarded their country simply as a province of Serbia, indeed some still do.

Pakistan’s judgment day

The elections in Pakistan on 18 February 2008 have transformed the country's political landscape. The reports of pre-poll rigging were confounded, the spin Musharraf tried to put on the results disregarded. In a veritable tsunami, many establishment politicians have been swept away, and Musharraf's grip on power is looking more tenuous than ever before.

The Defense News version

The Washington-based weekly Defense News is one of the most informative of the many military and defence journals on the market. As well as topical and detailed reports and analyses, it gives independent researchers useful insights into the thinking of the United States defence department. On occasion, a single issue of the magazine provides multiple indications of the Pentagon's outlook. The current issue - which, as ever, requires a subscription to access most of its material - is an unusually good example.

Desimir Tosic (1920-2008): in memoriam

Desimir Tosic died on 7 February 2008, in John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, aged 88. He was a unique and somewhat unconventional figure in modern Serbian history. Tosic was a politician who placed ideas and ideals above personal and material gain. He was a contemporary of Yugoslavia's turbulent life and its death(s), but wrote about Yugoslav history and politics with an honesty, balance, critical stance and deep knowledge rarely found among professional historians.
Dejan Djokic is lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College, London. He was formerly lecturer in Serbian and Croatian studies at the University of Nottingham. He is the editor of Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea (C Hurst, 2003 and University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and author of Elusive Compromise: A History of Interwar Yugoslavia (C Hurst, 2007)

Also by Dejan Djokic on openDemocracy:

"Serbia: one year after the October revolution" (17 October 2001)

"A farewell to Yugoslavia" (10 April 2002)

"Serbia: monarchy and national identity" (30 May 2002)

"Ex-Yu rock" (6 August 2002)

"Serbian presidential elections" (17 September 2002)

"A conflict of loyalties: 1999 and 2003" (6 March 2003)

"The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (13 March 2003)

This obituary was first published (with proper diacritics on personal names and titles) in EastEthnia on 9 February 2008

Although formally a politician, he was more of an enlightened educator whose ideas often clashed with the party line, despite his unquestioned overall loyalty to the Democratic Party (DS), of which he had been a member since the late 1930s. He was a Christian believer who was among the loudest critics of the Serbian Orthodox church and its role in politics. As an émigré he was equally critical of both the then communist regime and of backward-looking emigration; following his return to Serbia in 1990 his friends included many former communists. One of them was Draza Markovic, a leading communist politician in pre-Milosevic Serbia, with whom Tosic went to high school in the 1930s. Another former leading communist, and later the first important east European dissident, Milovan Djilas, was a figure Tosic admired and wrote about.

Born in 1920 in Bela Palanka, southern Serbia, in what was then the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Tosic moved to Belgrade in the 1930s to complete his secondary education. The capital was politically highly polarised at the time, but Tosic joined the centrist Democratic Party. The second world war and the German invasion interrupted his studies at Belgrade University's law faculty. During the war, Tosic supported General Mihailovic's resistance movement, like many of his fellow Democrats, but already at the time and even more so in his post-war writings, he was critical of both Mihailovic and Tito; he was also highly critical of the role of the monarchy in the interwar period, highlighting the counterproductive policies of King Aleksandar and his "successor" Prince Pavle. As a Mihailovic supporter, Tosic was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to work in Germany. He survived the war only to find himself as a refugee in France. There he met his future wife Coral, with whom he eventually settled in her native Britain in 1958.

Chad: between Sudan’s blitzkrieg and Darfur’s war

The Chadian rebels' dawn attack on the capital Ndjamena on 2 February 2008 was yet another case of a frustrated group of disgruntled African politicians throwing child soldiers at a sordid ethnic dictatorship they were hoping to overthrow in order to replace it with their own.

Pakistan and violence: memory, shame, and repression

The general election of 18 February 2008 in Pakistan takes place amid violence. The campaign has been marked by numerous assaults on authorities and civilians, and frequent suicide-bomb attacks on political rallies, which have exacted great loss of life; the nearest estimate is that in total around 150 people have been killed. The bombing of a Pakistan People's Party meeting on 16 February which killed forty-seven people and wounded 110 in Parachinar, in the Kurram district of northern Pakistan, is only the most bloody of such incidents.

Kosovo: the day after

After a decade of waiting and months of intense manoeuvring, Kosovo's assembly unilaterally declared independence on the afternoon of 17 February 2008. The capital Pristina lit up with celebratory fireworks, reflecting the mood of the Kosovar Albanians who form 90% of the population. The United States, France and Britain recognised or announced their intention to recognise the new state on the day after the declaration, and a number of European Union countries will follow. But there are forces adamantly against independence: most immediately, the Serbs living in enclaves within Kosovo where they form a majority, notably around the northern town of Mitrovica; Serbia, which to no one's surprise has declared the assembly's move null and void; and Russia, which is pressuring the United Nations to reject Kosovo's statehood (and which will use its Security Council veto to block Kosovo's membership of the UN).
Timothy William Waters teaches international law at Indiana University (Bloomington), and helped prepare the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic for crimes in Kosovo.

This article was written by invitation from openDemocracy

Iraq's political space

In recent months, many American politicians and officials have criticised the Iraqi government for acting too slowly: that is, for failing to exploit the limited time available for the political reforms and national reconciliation needed to turn recent tactical security gains into strategic gains. Indeed, the reform and reconciliation process is slow, but it is unfair to blame the Baghdad government only. The real cause of the government's ineffectiveness is the current political system, which is fatally flawed.

Kosovo declares independence



Convened in an extraordinary meeting on February 17, 2008, in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo,

Answering the call of the people to build a society that honours human dignity and affirms the pride and purpose of its citizens,

Committed to confront the painful legacy of the recent past in a spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness,

Dedicated to protecting, promoting and honoring the diversity of our people,

Reaffirming our wish to become fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic family of democracies,

Israel after Lebanon: warning siren, deaf ears

These are strange political times in Israel. This became clear to me on the day the official commission of inquiry into Israel's disastrous Lebanon war of July-August 2006 issued its report. It became the main topic of conversation in many unlikely places, including a reception for the opening of an Irish film festival in Tel Aviv attended by Ruth Dayan, the widow of the late General Moshe Dayan, the legendary hero of the six-day war of 1967. When I asked her if she thought the report would bring down the government, she replied: "I hope not. Who wants an election now? Let (prime minister Ehud) Olmert stay - if he goes, we will get something worse."

The asymmetry of economic war

The serious strategic predicament created by the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States and its key allies shows no sign of being alleviated. In Afghanistan, the dispute over the appointment of a new United Nations envoy in Kabul (where Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, vetoed the appointment of former British politician Paddy Ashdown to the role) is the surface of a deeper disarray. In Iraq, a number of signals (including the caution over US troop withdrawals expressed by defence secretary Robert M Gates during a two-day trip to Iraq, the ominous Sunni demonstrations in Diyala province, and new waves of Iraqi detainees inundating the US-controlled prison system) underline the difficulty of Washington and London's position.

The quiet revolution: energy futures in Iran, the Gulf, and Israel

The middle east's ownership of two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves means that its status as the world's leading energy supplier is hardly in doubt. Buta paradigm shift in how it fulfils this role may be around the corner. Don't be surprised if the region pioneers the switch from oil and gas to renewable energies.James Howarth is co-director of the middle east and north Africa division ofthe political risk consultancy ExclusiveAnalysis. He has worked as an advisor and as a translator, including of Messagesto the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden (Verso, 2005). He appears frequently appear in the broadcast media as a regional analyst

Also by James Howarth on openDemocracy:

"Jordan's 9/11" (10 November 2005)

"The fallout from Amman" (16 November 2005)

"Al-Qaida, globalisation and Islam: a response to Faisal Devji" (20 January 2006)


From the outside, the middle east is often seen as an undifferentiated collection of greedy, unrepresentative governments conspiring to exploit powerless consumers with their lucrative energy reserves. The stereotype hashad another boost in January 2008, when oil finally hit the symbolic $100-per-barrel mark. Even if the pricehas retreated since then, the strong and rising demand (particularly across Asia) means that the region's energy leverage is only going to get stronger.

Whatever the reasons for oil-price inflation - demand outpacing supply, refining capacity shortages, speculative investors and concerns over Gulfsecurity being just some - the arrival of three-figure oil in 2008 may prove a watershed not only for global consumption but also for the middle east's role in solving humanity's addiction to fossil-fuels.

The region is certainly not about to abandon its hydrocarbon cash-cow anytime soon. But a split is emerging between traditionalist and progressive visions, pitting cautious resource nationalism against creative investments in futuristic technologies.

The governments of such countries as Algeria, Libya and Saudi Arabia can easily afford to rely on high oil and gas revenues to insulate themselves from political opposition, upgrade their infrastructure, further enrich domestic elites and keep business healthy for western defence companies.

But these countries also remember when oil was nearer $10 than $100. They stillf ear that the current boom, while a safe short-term bet, won't last forever - that a global recession or breakthrough in alternative energy could greatly diminish bring oil demand. The answer is to diversify their economies. But entrenched interests, uncompetitive business environments and lack of immediate incentives stand in the way.

What kind of country?

Britain on 7 July 2005 became a different country. The four coordinated (and “homegrown”) suicide-bombs on the London transport network that killed fifty-two innocent people and injured more than 700 may have a cumulative social impact as great and potentially devastating as their uncountable human one.

The challenges raised by these attacks are multiple:

  • for public security agencies – to undertake intelligent and targeted police action against the organisers and practitioners of terrorism, while maintaining civic protection and social peace

Serbia chooses a future, just

The inconclusive result in in the first round of Serbia's presidential election on 20 January 2008 led to a second round on Sunday 3 February. Again, there was widespread fear that the extreme-right nationalism represented by the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and its candidate Tomislav Nikolic would score a decisive victory; and just as in the first round, an extraordinarily high turnout prevented that outcome. The incumbent president Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party (DS) squeaked through to re-election with 50,5% to Nikolic's 47,9%. In doing so Tadic has probably gained a bit of political autonomy in addition to his second five-year mandate, but nothing is secure.

Europe’s Afghan test

Every mission where the European Union is involved will at some point be hailed as a "test case" for its nascent foreign and defence capabilities. From Chad to Bosnia and Kosovo, there are plenty of such tests to choose from. But of all the current missions, Afghanistan is the most important. An EU failure there would have very serious consequences for the Afghan state and people; and it would imperil the effort to develop a common EU foreign policy at the very time when the Lisbon treaty is meant to signal the arrival of a new global player.

Europe's Afghan test

Daniel Korski - Afghanistan (1)

Serbia’s presidential election: the best-laid plans...

The best-laid plans of the unpopular party in power came to nothing in the Serbian presidential election on 20 January 2008, mostly because the voters decided to surprise everybody by turning out in large numbers. In the immediate aftermath, the hadlines report that Serbian Radical Party (SRS) candidate Tomislav Nikolic "won" the first round against incumbent president and Democratic Party (DS) leader Boris Tadic with a 39.6% plurality of the vote to the 35.4% received by Tadic [it should be noted that these statistics are from the projections by the observer group, the Centre for Free Elections and Democracy [CeSiD]; the results reported by the Serbian electoral commission may be different, though probably not by very much). This, however, is a partial and misleading gloss on a more nuanced outcome which should be read against the background of current Serbian politics.

Nasser's complex legacy

Many aficionados of Arab cinema recall a famous scene in Nasser 56, the film made to commemorate the Suez war of 1956. An old Egyptian woman from Upper Egypt, the region from which Gamal Abdel Nasser hails, gets a chance to talk to Nasser in private. She hands him a wretched, flimsy pair of trousers which used to belong to her grandfather. She tells Nasser that the man was, like millions of Egyptian youths, taken from his village to al-sokhra (slavery) to join the brigades digging the Suez canal. And like many of those millions, he never returned; he died young, far away from his family and his home.

Kosovo: the hour of Europe

In 1991, as Yugoslavia was on the point of imploding, the Luxembourg foreign minister Jacques Poos spoke for many prominent Europeans when he proclaimed that "the hour of Europe has struck". The implication was clear - the then twelve-member European Community had a moral responsibility to intervene so as to prevent an escalation of conflict.

John O' Brennan is a lecturer in European politics and society at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth (NUIM). Among his books are The Eastern Enlargement of the European Union (Routledge, 2006) and (forthcoming) The EU and the Western Balkans: Stabilization and Democratization through Enlargement (Routledge, 2008)Tragically, no substantive EU political engagement was attempted and Yugoslavia descended into an abyss of fratricidal ethnic cleansing which cost upwards of 250,000 lives. Today, as the government of Hashim Thaci formed after the November 2007 elections in Kosovo prepares to declare independence from Serbia, the future of the western Balkans looms as the most serious geopolitical issue facing the enlarged EU of twenty-seven member-states. How should the EU respond?

Deaths in Iraq: the numbers game, revisited

A third assessment of post-invasion violent deaths in Iraq was published on 9 January 2008 by the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious platform for medical research and scientific debates edited in Boston, Massachusetts. The lead article in the journal - "Violence-Related Mortality in Iraq from 2002 to 2006" - reports the results of an inquiry by the Iraq Family Health Survey Study Group (IFHS), involving collaboration between national and regional ministers in Iraq and the World Health Organisation (WHO). It finds that 151,000 (between 104,000 and 220,000) people died from violence in Iraq between March 2003 and June 2006. When such a politically sensitive figure is published, it is critical to turn statistics into words and explain what the new evidence tells, what it does not, and how far it confirms or invalidates the previous ones.

Pakistan: a post-election scenario

The week of violence and rioting in Pakistan followed Benazir Bhutto's assassination on 27 December 2007 in Rawalpindi saw fifty-eight people killed. The turmoil has continued, with a suicide-bomb attack at a police checkpoint in Lahore on 10 January 2008 taking the lives of twenty-four more. Yet in politics, it has also been a period of relative calm. One reason has been the approach of Muharram, the month of mourning for when the martyrdom of Hussein, the Prophet Muhammed's grandson, is marked. The first ten days of the month are observed in especially emotional ways by Shi'a, with reitals of the siege and the final battle, culminating on the tenth day when Hussein and most of his family were killed.

Mikheil Saakashvili’s bitter victory

The international community may have given its (albeit qualified) seal of approval to Mikheil Saakashvili's contested victory in Georgia's presidential elections on 5 January 2008, but Georgia itself is bitterly divided over the outcome. The official figures conclude that Saakashvili, the incumbent, received 53.38% of the vote against 25.66% for the main opposition candidate, Levan Gachechiladze. But the opposition has refused to accept the validity of this result; Gachechiladze says he has been robbed of the second-round play-off that would have ensued on 19 January if Saakashvili had fallen below the 50% mark. The emotional temperature in the capital, Tbilisi - where Gachechiladze beat the president into second place - is particularly high.

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