Freedom versus mutilation

The harsh reality of Afghan "democracy"

Reviewing the papers on Nick Ferrari's breakfast show on LBC radio this morning, I was stopped in my tracks by the front page of the Independent. Kim Sengupta's piece is headlined "Mutilatated - for voting in defiance of the Taliban", and the shocking image accompanying the story is the bandaged and bloodied face of an Afghan farmer, Lal Mohammed. Mohammed, a Hazara Shia from the southern province of Uruzgan, had his nose and ears slashed off by Taliban fighters while on his way to vote in the recent presidential elections.

Sengupta writes:

What happened to the 40-year-old farmer is the savage and hidden side of the election in a country experiencing a bloody war. This chilling account is the first from a victim of retribution taken by insurgents on someone who had defied their order to boycott the polls. And it helps to explain why so many people throughout the country were simply too afraid to vote.

The Independent listened to Mr Mohammed's terrifying tale in a house where he has taken refuge and is being guarded by friends. To add to the misery he has suffered, he has not received any serious medical treatment for three days because one of the main hospitals in the Afghan capital - where he had arrived after an arduous three-day journey - declared it had no room to keep him due to chronic overcrowding.

Is this what our troops are fighting and dying for? This story coincides with news of the 208th British military death in this war, killed in Helmand over the weekend. In recent days, it has also emerged that "just 150 Afghan voters dared to go to the ballot box in the area of Helmand province where British soldiers sacrificed their lives to secure a safe election day". This is depressing, and shameful.

Then there is the matter of fraud. I do find it ironic that our politicians and press reacted with fury to the Iranian presidential elections in June, rightly condemning the alleged vote-rigging and ballot-stuffing across the Islamic Republic, but have remained so silent on similar behaviour in neighbouring Afghanistan.

The Independent reports:

...allegations of major fraud at the polls have more than doubled in the past two days to stand at 550, and these may affect the final outcome.

Results so far, with votes counted from 35 per cent of polling stations, show President Hamid Karzai leading with 46.2 per cent, and his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, with 31.4 per cent.

However videos showing possible fraud have been posted on the internet, and Mr Abdullah and other opposition candidates have lodged complaints about what they say was widespread cheating. These complaints, and the low turnout in the south because of Taliban threats of violence, have dealt severe blows to the credibility of the voting process.

Adding to the sense of disorganisation here have been large-scale discrepancies in the voting returns coming in from across the country. Helmand province, the centre of British operations, has returned just one ballot box so far.

Mr Karzai's chief rival, Mr Abdullah, has stated: "My concern is about massive fraud - state-crafted, state-engineered fraud - which has taken place throughout the country. This kind of thing isn't tolerated in other democratic elections, so why should it be tolerated in Afghanistan?"

Abdullah asks a good question. The simple answer is that the British and American governments are willing this presidential election to be a success no matter what. How else to explain to the voters the ever-growing numbers of coalition soldiers returning home in bodybags? How else to justify an increasingly unjustifable "mission"?

On a final note: the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, has said that he believes the presidential elections would offer more Afghans "a stake in their own emerging democracy". Here is Lal Mohammed's response in today's Independent:

"Poor people suffer in this country. I do not know whether the elections will change that. I do not think I will try to vote again, I am now very frightened."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.