2009 Retrospective: Some Thought-Provoking News Items
While thought-provoking news items from 2009 are certainly abundant – involving international machinations, potential environmental calamity and ever-accelerating technological advancements – here are a couple of stories that may raise an eyebrow.
“Karzai’s Brother On C.I.A. Payroll”
The New York Times reports that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of the US-backed and recently fraudulently-elected Afghan president Hamid Karzai, has received regular payments from the CIA since 2001. This probably isn’t that surprising, except that Ahmed Karzai is now implicated as a link in the chain of the global opium trade. The growth of opium poppies by poor Afghan farmers is an extremely rational choice considering that it is a hardy crop, which survives the winter, and draws a handsome return; and Afghanistan may now provide up to 90% of world opium supplies. However, one should probably be more scathing of the activities of wealthy international narco-traffickers in the pay of Western intelligence agencies.
Ahmed Karzai seems to have been helpful to the CIA in establishing an Afghan paramilitary group called the ‘Kandahar Strike Force’ for raids against suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda targets, arranging facilities for US Special Operations forces outside Kandahar, and establishing communications with Taliban representatives. So, with President Obama committing tens of thousands more US soldiers to activity in Afghanistan over the next year, it is of particular concern that the regime they support as the only alternative to Taliban rule lacks credibility both domestically and internationally, and is demonstrably involved in criminal activities.
Historically, power-mad US-backed leaders (e.g. Ngo Dinh Diem of South Vietnam or Manuel Noriega of Panama) have, after a few years of American patronage, ended up being overthrown by internal or external intervention – with many thousands of innocent civilians maltreated in the process or aftermath. I’m sure this is not the result that the idealistic new US president desires, but unless Obama exchanges his hand of cards early in the round, the game is set to end badly for the Afghan people. Meanwhile, the support of international drug dealers and autocrats must also surely be corrosive to Western democratic values.
And a couple of African-related stories that also help illuminate how the world actually works:
“Pardoned Briton regrets coup plot”
Though this story had been ongoing for a number of years, developments in late 2009 shall hopefully set the scene for interesting revelations in 2010. In 2004, a band of 60-odd African mercenaries led by the former British SAS soldier and Eton graduate Simon Mann (in the right photo) attempted an abortive coup in the central African nation of Equatorial Guinea. Equatorial Guinea is a small country, which is now one of Africa’s largest oil exporters, and with its stereotypically authoritarian-tyrant President Teodoro Obiang Nguema seemed to be the perfect candidate for a ‘Man Who Would Be King’-style takeover by Western adventurers. The supposed Guinean President-in-exile Severo Matías Moto Nsá – living in Spain – was to be re-imported as the new national leader for this plot, which collapsed as the main body of soldiers were captured during a pit-stop in Zimbabwe.
So after spending 3 years in a Zimbabwean jail, Simon Mann was extradited to Equatorial Guinea and promptly sentenced to 34 years imprisonment. A story surely wrapped-up nicely, except that Mann claimed that he was not the instigator of this coup, and merely a pawn in the intrigues of higher powers – (who?): none other than Sir Mark Thatcher (in the left photo), the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; and the London-based Lebanese millionaire Ely Calil. Crazy? Not at all. Sir Mark, who was living in South Africa at the time, was convicted of providing funding to the coup, but given a suspended sentence. He always claimed that he didn’t know where the money he gave his friends was going… Sir Mark now lives in southern Spain, where he spends his days avoiding investigations into his activities by Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command.
Needless to say, Simon Mann was less than happy about taking the fall for his wealthier puppet-masters, but there was little he could do from his Guinean dungeon. However, late in 2009 intervention by the South African government helped Mann’s family to secretly negotiate his release, which President Nguema’s representatives described as being on ‘humanitarian grounds’. So, while Thatcher greeted news of Mann’s release with perhaps feigned enthusiasm, Mann made it quite clear that vengeance was on the agenda, declaring he is, “very anxious that Calil, Thatcher and one or two of the others should face justice”. So watch out for potential prosecutions and tell-all books arising from this episode in 2010/2011.
“How ‘Angolagate’ shook French political foundations to the core”
The sister story to the tales of former British Prime Minister Thatcher’s offspring running amok, is the ‘Angolagate’ scandal involving Jean-Christophe Mitterrand (in the right photo), the son of former French President Francois Mitterand, and more than 40 other leading figures in French politics; including former French Interior Minister Charles Pasqua (in the left photo). The scandal basically involved the sale of weapons from French sources to the Angolan government during their civil war, in violation of a UN embargo on arms trading. The illegal arms deals may have also been linked to advancing the influence of French oil companies over Angolan petrochemical resources. In October 2009 Pasqua was sentenced to one year in prison for his role, while Jean-Christophe Mitterrand was given a suspended sentence. The French politicians Jacques Attali and Georges Fenech were acquitted in the trial.
During the trial Pasqua also implicated former French Presidents Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac of being aware of the illegal arms sales in the 1990s. President Chirac is meanwhile due to stand trial for other corruption charges. The scandal has also implicated Pierre Falcone, the head of the corporate consortium Brenco International, and the Russian–Israeli businessman Arcadi Gaydamak, in facilitating the transfers of money and weapons. Once again, the scandal highlights the murky nexus of some high-ranking Western politicians, international corporations, shadowy businessmen, arms manufacturers, intelligence agencies and third world regimes. And it should be remembered that, while corruption is prevalent in areas like Africa, the will to corrupt and the funds to do so often come from businesses in the wealthier, developed world.
“China honoured in Central Africa”
And finally a story about the changing global balance of power and growing international network of ‘south-south’ connections. China has an increasingly large stake in the future of Africa, now being the continent’s second-largest economic partner after the United States with $100 Billion annually in trade. This new economic relationship has much to do with developing and buying oil supplies, though is also involving significant investment in the infrastructure of African countries, and cultural exchange. There are also growing immigrant communities of Chinese in Africa, and Africans in China, creating deeper social ties that will echo through future affairs.
I will write more about this here in the future, but one particular story demonstrating this trend to me in 2009 was the ‘Africa-China Friendship Week’ held in the Central African Republic. The Central African Republic is a nation on the very lowest rungs of the Human Development Index, with little industry and no oilfields, yet China has thrown itself into building diplomatic and economic ties. China has built schools, a hospital and housing there, as well as the 20,000-seat national stadium where many of the Week’s events were held. The CAR also has a small Chinese business community who import Chinese products, such as clothes and fashion accessories.
The week of events was loosely connected to the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, but mainly highlighted the growing relationship between the two nations, with an exhibition of photographs of Chinese society, Chinese films, free medical consultations and, my favourite part, a table-tennis tournament. This story points out that, as the West is increasingly challenged in its dominance by new rising powers, that challenge will be as much about culture and social connections as about economics and military strength. There has always been much talk of the West’s ‘soft power’, in which other nations cooperate because they are convinced of our values and seek to emulate our lifestyle; and this is a lesson that the West’s rivals seem to be learning.