To  be filed .…..

Martin Chulov was  once again convincing and depressing, reporting from Syria in the Guardian on the first day of 2014.

Chulov has been pointing out for a while that the collapse of Assad’s authority is in danger of making way for  Al Qaeda.  Now, he says, it has effectively become the arena for a showdown which has been brewing for 1400 years – between Sunni Muslims, represented here by the Syrian rebels, Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda’s powerful network of supporters; and the Shias, championed by Assad supporters and Hezbollah, drawing on support from Iran and Lebanon.  Both sides tell Chulov the time for a final showdown has come.

Show me a British politician likely to have a clue why – or what to do about it.

Courtesy of The Economist, we can discern that the split goes back to who should have become leader of the Islamic world after the death of Muhammad, the prophet and warrior who created it.  The split between the sects was set up then and it has been widened more and more since, by differences in scriptural interpretation and favouritism and persecution by earthly powers.

Rory Stewart, the unusual Conservative MP for Penrith, is one of the few MPs who might have the faintest inkling of the complications of this issue – and he has given up thinking that outsiders can do anything about it.

In the Guardian of 3.1.14, Decca Aitkenhead summed up …

“Stewart is a Scot born in Hong Kong, raised in Malaysia and educated at Eton, who studied PPE at Oxford while tutoring Princes William and Harry in his spare time. On graduating he joined the foreign office, posted first to Indonesia to help sort out East Timor, and then to Montenegro to deal with Kosovo.  Between 2000 and 2002 he walked 6,000 miles through Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, staying in villagers’ houses, before being dispatched to Iraq to take charge of two provinces and to help write the country’s new constitution. He wrote two bestselling memoirs about his experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, Harvard made him a professor, and he founded a charity in Afghanistan at the request of its president and the Prince of Wales.

“By 35 he had led so many adventures that Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to a biopic of his life. And then he came home to become the Tory member for Penrith.

“Stewart came home when he realised that even the least-educated Afghan housewife in a mountain village knew more about the country than he did. Fluent in Dari, along with nine other languages, he’d thrown himself into the coalition mission with great conviction, but had to conclude that:  ‘In the end, the basic problem is very, very simple. Why don’t these interventions work? Because we are foreigners. If things are going wrong in a country, it’s not usually that we don’t have enough foreigners. It’s usually that we have too many.’

“Ten years ago he would have listed 10 things Afghanistan needed to build a new state: rule of law, financial administration, civil administration and so on. ‘And, then you would say, well, how do you do that? Well, I’d say, by a mapping of internal and external stakeholders, definition of critical tasks – all this jargon talk. And I’ve only now just begun to realise these words are nonsense words. I mean, they have no content at all. We should be ashamed to even use them … They pretend to be a plan, but they’re actually just a description of an absence. Saying ‘What we need is security, and what we need to do is eliminate corruption’ is just another way of saying ‘It’s really dangerous and corrupt.’ None of that actually tells you how it’s done … All these theories – counterinsurgency warfare, state building – were actually complete abstract madness. They were like very weird religious systems, because they always break down into three principles, 10 functions, seven this or that. So they’re reminiscent of Buddhists who say: ‘These are the four paths’, or of Christians who say: ‘These are the seven deadly sins’.  They’re sort of theologies, essentially, made by people like Buddhist monks in the eighth century – people who have a fundamental faith, which is probably, in the end, itself completely delusional.’

“Whenever Stewart took one of these ideas, such as rule of law, to an actual Afghan village, it became meaningless. ‘None of the things that I’m looking for exist. There obviously isn’t police, or a judge, there isn’t a legal code, there isn’t a prison. There’s a bunch of guys with white beards sitting around, and their system of doing that might be quite different from the next-door village. So then how do you get from there to here? Well, it can be done, but it’s not going to be done by a foreigner who barely understands any of that.’”



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