Dec 06, 2008
I knew I was in Tajikistan this week when my Lebanese roaming mobile phone welcomed me to "Russia" on arrival at Dushanbe airport. Yup folks, Alpha Beirut really believed I was in Mr Putin's empire. And, wondrous to behold, the phone pinged again when I was on my way to the Tajik town of Panj on the Amu Darya, welcoming me to Afghanistan. An hour later, when I was still in Tajikistan north of the ancient Oxus River - traversed by Alexander, who actually married a Tajik (later murdered, of course) - my mobile pinged once more. This time it welcomed me to the United Arab Emirates.
Forgetting the whole of Afghanistan, part of Pakistan - or a hunk of Iran, depending on your flight path - my mobile actually believed that I was among the gleaming towers of Dubai when I was in one of Stalin's poorest Muslim former republics. It reminded me of how, back in the mid-1970s, a foreign editor on The Times used to keep a spinning globe on his desk as a sign of his global importance and would place the tip of his thumb on the scene of a catastrophe in order to dispatch his nearest reporter to the location. Thus he once sent my predecessor in Lebanon by road to a northern Turkish earthquake on the grounds that - despite a Syrian border crossing for which a visa took a week to negotiate - Beirut was only half a thumb from Trabzon. Ping. Welcome to Turkey.
I suspect this is pretty much how the Bush administration regarded Muslim south-west Asia. One bunch of Muslims in Dushanbe was pretty much the same as another in Kabul or the Emirates. After all, Dushanbe boasts a French air force squadron flying close air support to the Brits in Afghanistan's Helmand province while Dubai welcomes the Royal Navy, the French air force and successive US secretaries of state. Those pesky Muslims are just about covered by a finger and thumb. Why bother with the detail?
An oddly similar parallel has emerged since the election of Obama. During the campaign, President Ahmadinejad of Iran announced that the "Israeli regime" would be destroyed. That's actually what he said in Farsi - not "Israel", though the distinction might appear to be splitting hairs. Immediately, Mrs Hillary Clinton announced that if Tehran attacked Israel, she would "flatten Iran". And now she is to be secretary of state, the Iranians are understandably a little bit angry. Was the new pussycat in the State Department going to take over from the previous pussycat by threatening violence against Iran when Obama supposedly wants "dialogue"?
And a kind of inverted hypocrisy immediately followed. Mrs Clinton, American "officials" let on, should not be taken too seriously because this was an election campaign. Indeed, Obama - putting distance between the mutual recriminations of both Democrat candidates a few months ago - this week blithely dismissed their own election speeches. What he meant was that they both told lies to get votes. Yet the crackpot president of Iran's threat was still to be taken with the greatest seriousness. Not difficult to get the message, is it? The future secretary of state should not be believed when she threatens Iran - but Iran must be taken seriously when it threatens Israel.
I guess we ordinary folk are going to go on sipping at the same creepy narrative under Obama's regime. Take the easy way we have already accepted the story of the "highly disciplined", "professional" and "military" way in which Mumbai's T-shirted butchers slaughtered their way through hotels and railway station last week. Were they from Pakistan's Kashmir or trained in the camps of Afghanistan? Well, I wonder. I recall how, when Algeria's obscene civil war began between Pouvoir and "Islamists" in the early 1980, we were regaled by the authorities with stories of "terrorists wearing police uniforms" cutting the throats of civilians. This went on for months before Dumbo Fisk realised - and later confirmed by interviewing members of the Algerian security forces - that the men in police uniforms were policemen. Ergo Baghdad where journalists regaled the world with stories of attacks on civilians and foreigners by men "wearing police uniforms". Since there were no ready-to-wear police uniforms in Bakuba warehouses, they were policemen working for the insurgents.
And I rather suspect that the "highly disciplined" and "professional" killers of Mumbai come from the same stable. The Pakistani Inter Service Intelligence? Quite possibly. The Pakistani army - many of whose men have been mysteriously captured and equally mysteriously vanished in the tribal territories? Maybe. Or the Indian security services, whose inter-religious makeup is never discussed, but against whom there is substantial evidence of massacres in Kashmir? These days, all such acts of cruelty should be referred to by what the police used to call an '"open mind".
Just look how we've forgotten the CIA's secret prisons. In Afghanistan, a Fisk source who has never - ever - been wrong, tells me that there are at least 20 of these torture centres still active in the country, six in Zabol province alone. But we don't care about Afghans. Yet I was struck by a tiny - irrelevant, you might say - incident at Herat airport a couple of weeks ago when two Afghans invited me for lunch beside the runway. Our small Kandahar-Kabul aircraft was refuelling while I shared their bread and tea and boiled egg, leaving my web of eggshells on the burned grass. Imagine my embarrassment when I stood up and turned to find them gently collecting each piece of eggshell and placing them in a plastic bag. Keep Afghanistan clean. Will we? Ping. Welcome to Afghanistan.
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